This story is supported by The Pulitzer Center.
For more than a year, Irbin Rocha has been fighting to stop his deportation.
Rocha, 27, has been detained at the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee County. The county jail has a contract with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to house immigrants like Rocha for $90 per day. Last month, he got sick during a COVID-19 outbreak in his unit, infecting at least 22 detainees. He recovered, but now he wants to know when he will get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Last year, they brought us some paperwork asking if we wanted to get the vaccine,” Rocha said. “And everybody in the unit where I’m at, we all said yes. We want the vaccine. We haven’t gotten anything. Not even information.”
In Illinois, people detained or incarcerated in jails and prisons became eligible to get the vaccine starting on Jan. 25. There are at least 177 immigrants detained in county jails in Illinois, according to data from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In addition to the facility in Kankakee County, the county jails in northwest suburban McHenry County and Pulaski County, at the state’s southern tip, also have federal contracts to house detained immigrants.
When WBEZ asked officials about their plan for vaccine distribution for this population, officials didn’t share much information. Instead, the agencies shifted responsibility for vaccinating ICE detainees amongst each other.
ICE officials said county health departments were responsible for vaccinating detainees. The sheriff’s offices in Kankakee and Pulaski counties did not respond to multiple requests for comment. When the McHenry County Health Department responded to questions, the responsibility for vaccinating this population was shifted to the feds.
“We were informed by the corrections facility medical contractors that ICE would be providing the vaccine for the detainees and that they, the medical contractors in the corrections facility, would administer,” spokeswoman Lindsey Salvatelli said.
Officials from the Illinois Department of Public Health declined to answer questions and directed all inquiries to the local health departments.
César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a professor of law at the University of Denver, said while DHS sets basic standards for county jails that contract with them, a lack of oversight leaves immigrants vulnerable.
“They’re [detained immigrants] not entitled to legal representation,” said García Hernández, who wrote the book Migrating to Prison, which explores mass incarceration and the immigration system. “If they’re going through the immigration court process and they’re locked up in some county jail somewhere in Illinois, most likely they are not going to have a lawyer. There’s no one who comes into the facility to meet with those people.”
He said having lawyers at the facilities is crucial because the lawyers can raise concerns about issues like vaccine distribution.
Ruben Loyo, associate director of the detention project at the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), said he’s concerned about the lack of access ICE detainees have to vaccines.
“There’s still uncertainty about when vaccines will be provided,” Loyo said. “We’ve also spoken to individuals in these facilities who have received no information. And some cases where the information isn’t always consistent.”
Loyo said the Pulaski County detention center in southern Illinois had the biggest COVID-19 outbreak in the state with 110 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic. But the detainees Loyo has spoken with from that facility told him no information about vaccines has been provided.
He said it is important for county officials to provide information to detainees about the vaccine.
“There will be some fear and distrust among the population in these facilities,” Loyo said. “This has to go hand in hand with an effort to provide education to individuals about the vaccine.”
At the Combs Detention Center in Kankakee County, Rocha said deputies started handing out masks in May, but he said not everyone complies with the mask requirements, including deputies. Rocha immigrated to Illinois when he was 9 years old. He’s been fighting his deportation since 2019. His lawyer, David Faherty with NIJC, said he’s been trying to have Rocha released from detention.
In the meantime, Rocha said he wants to get the vaccine.
“We asked the nurses and the officers, and they just go around the subject,” he said.
Other immigrants who have been detained during the COVID-19 pandemic are also starting to speak up about poor living conditions at the county jails in Illinois.
Johannes Favi was detained at the same facility for 10 months before being released in April, following litigation by NIJC. He describes the situation at the jail as unsafe. He’s raising money to help immigrants who are still detained.
“I was detained, and I know firsthand the horrible conditions in that detention center,” Favi said.
He’s started a GoFundMe campaign. He hopes to help immigrants currently detained at the Kankakee county jail buy items to help keep them safe, including soap.