42 immigrant children test positive for COVID-19 at Heartland detention centers


Xavier Ortega | The DePaulia

A child detention center located in Rogers Park on the city’s Far North Side, one of five such properties managed by Heartland Alliance.

In what may be the largest outbreak of coronavirus in an immigrant detention center for minors in the United States, at least 42 children and two employees have tested positive for coronavirus at Heartland Alliance facilities around Chicago.

After receiving the results on 100% of the children in our shelters today, we can report that we have 42 confirmed positive participant cases across all of our shelters, including 33 children who were completely asymptomatic at the time of testing.  All children are doing well and their prognosis is very good,” said Mailee Garcia, senior director of communications and marketing for Heartland, in an April 17 statement.

 While the five Chicago-based facilities have the capacity to care for up to 381 children, an investigation from The DePaulia found that only 92 children are currently being held.

Given what we know of how quickly this virus can spread when there is not appropriate social distancing, all such detention and care facilities are at risk of such outbreaks,” said Allison Tirres, a DePaul University College of Law associate professor specializing in immigration law.

Heartland maintains that health and safety protocols have been followed since the outbreak began.

“We have been following every recommended health and safety protocol for weeks, including taking daily temperatures, frequent handwashing and social distancing,” the statement said.  “When staff are sick with anything, they are sent home. And when anyone tests positive for COVID-19, we communicate with all with whom they have been in contact, and they too are put on quarantine.”

Tabitha Smith, an organizer with Rogers Park Solidarity Network, said the organization was “disturbed, but not shocked” by the outbreak.

 “In mid-March, we wrote an open letter, conducted a call-in campaign, and held a demonstration warning of a possible COVID-19 outbreak in the detention centers and demanding that Heartland release their prisoners immediately,” Smith said. “Our warnings were not heeded, and, sadly, the outbreak at the Heartland centers was reported nearly a month later.” 

Smith said proper social distancing and hygiene procedures have been followed at in-person demonstrations outside of these detention centers.

In addition to pressuring Heartland, the purpose of these demonstrations is to show the children inside that they have not been abandoned,” Smith said. “Heartland claims that we scare the children, but they have held up signs in the windows saying ‘HELP’ and ‘thank you’ and so on. These demonstrations have been happening for years, but since the pandemic started people have been out there pretty regularly.” 

Rogers Park Solidarity Network is not the only organization hosting protests – Smith said they work closely with other activist groups like Little Village Solidarity Network and Free Heartland Kids.

Rogers Park Alderwoman Maria Hadden and State Representative Kelly Cassidy contacted the executive director of Heartland and released a joint statement on April 23 stating the facilities are working to release detainees. 

“They have also already been working to release as many children as possible, as quickly as possible, into their sponsor homes, but made it clear to us that they are not the decision-makers about release,” the statement said. “It is the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) that approves placement and release of the children in custody.”

However, Smith said Heartland’s claims of the federal government impeding on the release process is what “they’ve already been saying for years.”

“So, first, we want proof and we want numbers,” Smith said. “How many have been released? Where did they go? How many are still there? Next, we want them to close these centers forever. They have given no indication that they will do that. They should not be allowed to reopen after the pandemic.”

Despite the outbreak, President Donald Trump continues his crackdown on immigration. ICE raids have continued and the administration has toughened policies – including suspending immigration for 60 days. 

Tirres said the “hardest hit” area of such policy has been admissions – as alternatives to detention have been proposed. 

The administration claims to be pursuing alternatives to detention for some detainees,” Tirres said. “But there are also some troubling signs that ICE and CBP may be expelling migrants at the border rather than detaining them and allowing them to bring asylum claims.”

Detention centers across the country have seen surges in coronavirus cases – with the largest reporting 94 infected inmates and eight ICE employees at Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, California

Tirres said lawsuits calling for the release of immigrants in detention have been filed by organizations across the country, including ACLU and NIJC,  so the release of detainees may depend on the results of individual suits.

DHS has not indicated a willingness to release detainees generally, so it’s been proceeding on a piecemeal basis,” Tirres said. “But that is of little comfort to those children and staff who are unable to protect themselves at this time. I think the best we can hope for is an acceleration of placements of those children, plus some judicial decisions that mandate release in the context of this pandemic.”


Update: The headline has been changed from “center” to “centers.”