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Coronavirus outbreak hits immigration detainees before vaccine eligibility opens for jails in Illinois

People detained in jails across Illinois are now eligible to receive the vaccine against COVID-19, but it remains uncertain when those in immigration custody will receive it.

Irbin Rocha, 27, of suburban Calumet City, was one of 22 immigration detainees at the Jerome Combs Detention Center who tested positive for COVID-19 during a recent outbreak, which happened just weeks before the group became eligible for the vaccine.
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Irbin Rocha got a form about a month ago asking if he wanted to take the vaccine against COVID-19 while in immigration custody at the Jerome Combs Detention Center.

But an outbreak in January left Rocha and at least 21 other immigration detainees sick with COVID-19 just before they became eligible for a vaccine in Illinois, according to statistics from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s website. As of Monday, there were 13 active COVID-19 cases out of a total of 22, according to ICE.

“Everybody got different symptoms,” Rocha said last week during a phone call from the jail, which is about 60 miles south of Chicago. “Some of the older people, it’s hard for them. Some of them, they are still sick, they get out of breath.”

The state moved to Phase 1B of the vaccine distribution on Jan. 25, and it includes people detained in jails and prisons. For ICE detainees in Illinois, it’s unclear when they will get the vaccine.

On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security released a statement saying everyone, regardless of immigration status, is encouraged to receive the vaccine. ICE would not detain undocumented immigrants at vaccination sites, according to the statement.

Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said local health departments will offer vaccines to anyone detained in jail.

In Illinois, federal immigration officials contract with three county jails to detain those facing deportation. The Pulaski County Detention Center, which is at the southern tip of the state, had no active virus cases as of Monday, but it previously had 110 cases, according to ICE’s website.

Nathan Ryder, a community outreach coordinator with the Southern Seven Health Department, said the department had not received any instructions from the federal or state government about how and when those in immigration custody at the jail will be inoculated. The average daily ICE population at the jail was 87 for fiscal year 2021, according to ICE statistics.

“We are in a wait-and-see mode to see what the instructions and demands are going to be from the state and federal officials,” Ryder said.

People in the Chicago area facing deportation could also be held at the McHenry County Jail in Woodstock, about 60 miles northwest of the city. The facility had one active case as of Monday, and it previously had six other COVID-19 cases, according to ICE’s website.

Lindsey Salvatelli, a spokeswoman for the McHenry County Department of Health, said the department thought ICE would provide the vaccine for immigration detainees. The facility’s average daily ICE population was 125, according to ICE statistics for fiscal year 2021.

The federal agency said the vaccines for those in immigration custody will be allocated by the local and state health departments.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been working with state and local health departments to ensure that the ICE detainee population is included in state vaccination plans,” the agency said in a statement.

About 50 vehicles circled and honked their horns outside Chicago’s ICE headquarters demanding the release of all immigration detainees from jails in Illinois at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Monday, March 30, 2020.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Kankakee County Sheriff Mike Downey said the inoculation at the jail could start as soon as this week after surveying detainees. The average daily ICE population was 46 for fiscal year 2021, according to ICE statistics. Downey estimated that anywhere from 40 to 45 ICE detainees were at the jail in January.

The jail announced Dec. 22 that several detainees tested positive for COVID-19. Downey said those who were sick in December weren’t in immigration custody.

By Jan. 8, at least one person in immigration custody at the jail tested positive for COVID-19, according to a filing in federal court.

That’s how Rocha’s attorneys, who have been working to get him released from the jail because he’s been in custody for more than a year and three months, learned about the outbreak, said David Faherty, an attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center.

By mid-January, Rocha said the jail tested everyone in immigration custody, and that’s when he tested positive. Rocha said he was starting to feel better, but he lost his sense of taste and smell.

Irbin Rocha, 27, of Calumet City, was one of 22 immigration detainees at the Jerome Combs Detention Center who recently tested positive for COVID-19. The outbreak happened just before those detained at jails across Illinois became eligible for the vaccine against the coronavirus.
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He was placed in a cell with someone else who tested positive and was given a variety of pills. Even before the pandemic, Rocha, 27, of Calumet City, said he wasn’t allowed to go outside since he was taken into immigration custody in October 2019 after serving a prison sentence.

In an electronically signed statement provided by his attorney, Florian Crainic, who is in immigration custody at the jail, said he started to feel sick just before Christmas. He tested negative on Dec. 29, but he later tested positive Jan. 8, according to the declaration.

Rocha said over time mask wearing wasn’t enforced. Crainic said in his declaration that officials stopped doing temperature checks around October.

Sheriff Downey said it was possible some people weren’t wearing masks.

“We aren’t going to put someone in segregation because they aren’t wearing the masks,” Downey said. “It’s impossible to police, really.”

Johannes Favi, who was released from immigration detention at Kankakee last April, had raised $320 by Monday through an online fundraiser so those in custody can buy soap and other hygiene products. When he was in custody, Favi said it was impossible to social distance, and officials hadn’t offered any information about the virus.

Since his release from custody, Favi has spoken out about conditions and advocates for those still detained.

“It’s very depressing to have no money and know your soap is running out,” Favi said.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.