July 13 (UPI) -- Four CEOs of private-sector immigrant detention companies defended their response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in front of a congressional subcommittee Monday.
Since the pandemic began, more than 3,000 detainees, 280 contractors and 45 ICE employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Two detainees and five contractors have died of complications after contracting COVID-19, a statement from Chairwoman Kathleen Rice, of the Border Security, Facilitation and Operations Subcommittee.
Rice said transfers between facilities and inadequate medical care are two factors spreading COVID-19 among detained populations.
Members of the House Homeland Security Committee requested testimony from heads of CoreCivic, Geo Group, Management and Training Corp and LaSalle Corrections after the DHS Inspector General issued a June report saying that facilities lacked the space to practice social distancing and lacked space to isolate detainees with symptoms or a coronavirus diagnosis.
More than 80 percent of the 34,000 immigrants in ICE custody are housed at privately run detention facilities. Contractors are paid $130 per day to house detainees.
Rice said ICE officials refused to attend the virtual hearing saying that the White House advised the agency not to testify in Congress unless the hearings were held in person.
CEOs said they worked with ICE to maintain best practices and that employees and detainees were tested regularly for symptoms and were then tested for COVID-19. Employees and detainees had access to masks, and were tested regularly, they said.
Whistleblowers from the Government Accountability Project and about 30 detainees who spoke to The New York Times have said that social distancing in ICE facilities is difficult, as 50-75 detainees are kept in each "pod" and that PPE for detainees is difficult to acquire.
Nearly half of the employees at a CoreCivic facility in Eloy, Ariz., recently tested positive for the virus, where CEO Damon Hininger, CEO of CoreCivic said that masks were "optional" for detainees.
Other committee members had questions about their specific local detention centers.
"My office has heard reports of dozens and even hundreds of detainees being moved in and out of the Colorado facility with little or no notice to their families of their lawyers," said Joe Neguse, D-Colo.
Neguse asked about a disinfectant called HALT that was allegedly being used by Geo Group contractors in "crowded and confined spaces" in the Aurora, Colo., facility, saying that detainees were complaining of bloody noses and skin rashes.
George Zoley, CEO of Geo Group also denied to Neguse that detainees were asked to "volunteer" to clean common areas under threat of solitary confinement if they refused. The ACLU filed a $5 million class-action lawsuit in 2014 alleging that Geo Group had forced detainees to work as "slave labor" in the kitchens and laundry rooms for $1 per day.
ICE has worked within Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and reduced the density of detainees to 70 percent in its facilities, said Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., the panel's ranking member.
The federal agency also released 900 detainees across the country who "posed a low risk to public safety," Higgins said.
Higgins complained that ICE contractors were doing their best to work with guidelines set by the CDC and Congress.
"We create ever moving goalposts for hardworking federal employees and contractors who are simply doing their jobs abiding by the laws as prescribed by Congress," Higgins said.