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Law360 (July 13, 2020, 11:22 PM EDT) -- The head of GEO Group Inc., a contractor for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Monday that the company won't stop using a chemical disinfectant in its detention centers when a House Democrat confronted him with reports that it caused nausea and bloody noses among immigrant detainees.
George Zoley said he wouldn't direct his workers to drop their use of the HDQ Neutral disinfectant while pressed by Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., over reports that the chemical has been sprayed in confined, indoor spaces in Adelanto, California, and Aurora, Colorado, detention facilities, sometimes with detainees in the room.
During a congressional hearing, Neguse said the HDQ Neutral label warns that the product should be used outdoors or in well-ventilated areas.
"I will not," Zoley pushed back on Monday, saying that the product is registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "[It] has been used at the Adelanto facilities as well as others for nine years, and there's never been reports of any adverse effects by anybody."
In May, immigrant advocacy groups told the federal government that detention staffers in the Adelanto center have begun spraying the facility every 30 minutes with the product, causing detainees to begin coughing up blood.
Neguse pointed out that he only asked Zoley to commit to following the manufacturer's instructions for using the product.
"Absolutely, I misunderstood your question," Zoley said.
The back-and-forth came amid a congressional hearing between some members of the House Committee on Homeland Security and the heads of GEO Group Inc., CoreCivic Inc. and two other ICE detention operators.
House Republicans protested the hearing during opening remarks, claiming that it was inappropriate to question private companies on how they're addressing protecting detention facilities from COVID-19 without a single ICE representative present.
But Democrats used the hearing to try and secure verbal commitments that the detention operators would amend their practices, with mixed results.
Neguse was shot down when he asked Zoley to inform families and legal representatives within 24 hours of receiving notice that a detainee will be transferred out of a Colorado facility.
"I don't know if I have that ability," Zoley said. "I would have to look into our ICE procedures of whether I'm allowed to do something of that nature."
Neguse noted that some individuals were transported to different centers in the middle of the night. "To tell their families that that's being done is a bare minimum requirement," he said.
Zoley appeared to try to say something, but was cut off by Neguse.
A GEO Group spokesperson denied the HDQ Neutral allegations in a statement issued after the hearing. "GEO has always followed, and will continue to follow, all manufacturer guidelines and EPA requirements for all cleaning products, including HDQ Neutral." the spokesperson said.
The company is uninvolved in the government's decisions to transfer detainees between centers, the spokesperson said. "We would therefore refer members of Congress to ICE for any questions regarding transfer decisions and related communications."
Though all four company heads readily agreed to let staff stay home if they experience COVID-19 symptoms, they balked at fully committing to creating webpages with daily updates on how many staff members have tested positive for the virus.
CoreCivic CEO Damon Hininger said he would release the information after checking in with ICE, with the other heads echoing his response.
Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., pointed out that ICE provides data on its employees' health. "There shouldn't be any objection that they have to you doing it," she said.
"We're a contractor, so we just need to make sure we're following the appropriate terms of our contract," Hininger responded.
However, earlier in the hearing, Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán, D-Calif., questioned whether they should even hold the executives at their word.
She focused that line of reasoning pointed toward Zoley, whose facilities in California and Florida haven't fared well under judicial scrutiny.
In May, a Florida federal judge ordered the Broward Transitional Center to reduce its population, finding that ICE had "demonstrated deliberate indifference" toward the safety of immigrant detainees. And in April, a California federal judge put the government on a timeline to reduce the population at the Adelanto center, ruling that the prisoners' safety was treated with "callous disregard."
"How can we take the assurances today seriously when your facilities repeatedly fail to live up to basic standards?" Barragán asked.
Zoley argued that his company's facilities were meeting and exceeding standards, adding that on-site ICE staff is helping ensure that his centers meet basic contract requirements.
Throughout the hearing, the contractors testified that they've been following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and ICE to curb the spread of COVID-19 within their facilities. They credited the reduction of their detainee population as helping them enact the social distancing measures pushed by the CDC.
Hininger acknowledged that adjusting to the pandemic has been a steep learning curve. "Have we been perfect? Absolutely not," he said, but there has been improvement. "I feel good that we've made the appropriate investments along the way."
Since COVID-19 reached the U.S., over 3,000 detainees, 280 private workers and 45 ICE employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Two detainees, with a possible third, and five contractors have died from the virus, according to Rice.
--Editing by Haylee Pearl.
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