NEWARK, NJ — Just two weeks after Essex County Correctional Facility became one of the first jails in the United States to test all ICE detainees for the coronavirus, U.S. Immigration and Customs officials are blocking Essex County Officials from reporting the results to the public.
Essex County Chief of Staff Phil Alagia, who oversees the ICE detention program for the county, said in an email Thursday evening that “ICE has prohibited us from reporting any information regarding their detainees including all of our test results. Our attorneys are reviewing that notification.”
A spokesperson from ICE’s Newark Field Office said that while they applaud the county’s efforts to screen detainees inside the facility for housing purposes, officials are claiming they want to avoid the release of inaccurate information.
“Positive results from (SARS antibody serology screenings) may be due to past or present infection with non-COVID-19 coronavirus strains, which are common, so a positive result does not establish a diagnosis of COVID-19,” the spokesperson said. “Additionally, because ICE must make a determination on the release of detainees from custody based on COVID-19 risk factors, ICE remains the sole source for accurate information on such releases.”
On April 13, Essex County announced it would begin three phases of testing for every inmate and immigration detainee housed in its correctional facility with a new rapid screening test that delivers results in minutes. Of the 115 immigrant detainee test results released Monday, 89 were positive or had developed immunity due to exposure, the report said.
ICE has come under fire nationwide during the coronavirus, and in New Jersey, advocates have pressed for the release of detainees from Essex County Correctional Facility. As of Tuesday, 85 detainees were released from the jail, leaving about 500 in the facility.
Chia-Chia Wang, advocacy director for American Friends Service Committee in Newark, said ICE’s attempts to keep information about detainees' health from the public come as no shock.
“It’s not surprising that ICE refused to share crucial information with the larger community. It’s more proof that the agency has no accountability toward anyone and doesn’t take the detainee and larger community’s health and safety seriously,” she said.