As COVID-19 continues to spread in ICE detention facilities, researchers are raising concerns that the agency may not be accurately reporting infections and deaths from the virus.
One Connecticut man who has been deemed medically vulnerable remains inside an Alabama detention center.
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Bakhodir Madjitov, a native of Uzbekistan, came to the U.S. after his folkloric ensemble was invited to perform at the South by Southwest music festival.
“He entered the country originally in 2006 on a visa for artists and entertainers,” said his lawyer, Diana Blank, an attorney at New Haven Legal Assistance. “He ended up staying and seeking asylum.”
His asylum petition was not successful, said Blank. Madjitov’s order of removal became final in 2014 and he was taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2017. He has never been charged with a crime.
His wife, Madina Mamadjonova, is also a native of Uzbekistan and a naturalized U.S. citizen. She said before the coronavirus crisis hit, she was juggling a job and caring for their three sons on her own in Windsor. “I was managing the situation barely,” she said. “And they are holding my noncriminal husband in jail since more than two years.”
Then she was laid off from work. Mamadjonova said she’s especially worried that her husband could contract COVID-19 behind bars.
“Bakhodir has heart problems, high blood pressure and more problems, which puts him at high risk to get that coronavirus,” she said.
Crowded ICE detention facilities are potential hotbeds for COVID-19. But ICE reports that of the almost 25,000 detainees in custody nationwide, 785 have tested positive for the virus and two have died.
John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who researches immigration policy, questions the reliability of the data in real time.
“In the past, reporting from within ICE facilities about illness, about the incidence of death, about the mishandling of detainees usually is reported well after the fact,” he said. “It would not come as a surprise, I think, if we found out six or eight months from now that many more people were infected with COVID in facilities and that several more people died who were detainees.”
ICE defends its efforts to try to safeguard detainees and staff against the coronavirus, pointing to its requirements and recommendations on social distancing and hygiene. The agency says arrests dropped nearly 50% in April compared to the month before, and the number of detainees has declined by nearly a third since the beginning of March.
But based on ICE’s history, oversight by the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security is critical, according to Hudak.
“That’s particularly important in an agency like ICE that has had so many problems that have been highlighted by inspectors general in the past.”
The role of an IG is to be an internal watchdog, conducting independent reviews of a range of federal programs to identify problems. But in the past few weeks, President Donald Trump has taken the unprecedented step of removing five IGs in charge of oversight of the intelligence community, the Defense Department, the State Department and others.
The number of IG reports about ICE operations has dropped significantly in the past three years, according to Hudak. And despite the fact that they’re supposed to be objective, the reports that were filed about ICE include language that seems to echo Trump’s political talking points, Hudak said.
“It is critical for IGs to remember they don’t work for the president, they work for the American people,” he said. “And the American people expect their government to be run effectively, and agencies like ICE need to be held under a microscope particularly in times of crisis.”
Madina Mamadjonova said she just wants her husband to come home.
“He never committed any kind of crime,” she said. “Only for overstaying his visa, they just took him. It’s all very difficult feelings.”
In an email to Connecticut Public Radio, ICE spokesman Bryan D. Cox said Bakhodir Madjitov remains in ICE custody “solely due to his own actions.” Cox said Madjitov has received “all appropriate legal process before U.S. courts,” and “he remains in ICE detention until he agrees to make timely and good faith efforts to cooperate with the removal process as required by federal law.”