Guatemalans facing deportation from the US are looking at two potentially dire fates: Either wait in Immigration and Customs Enforcement jails and risk exposure to the coronavirus, or be deported back to their country where they are quarantined inside a makeshift hospital with few resources.
Maria, 48, has seen both.
"It was horrible. The food is bad, you can't sleep, and the toilet is in a cell you share with four people,” she said about being held for 16 days in ICE custody in Florida.
Then, in mid-March, she was deported and sent to a medical facility to Guatemala City. There, "you suffer,” she said. “There isn't enough medicine... There wasn't enough water, and it’s really hot. There are many needs.”
Maria told BuzzFeed News she developed a fever a few days after landing in Guatemala and tested positive for COVID-19 while quarantined inside the hospital. She’s still not sure when she caught the virus.
Maria, who declined to give her full name fearing retaliation from the Guatemalan government, is one of at least 99 people deported from the US during a pandemic who tested positive for the virus, inciting a flurry of criticism that the Trump administration was exporting COVID-19 to other countries.
Guatemala’s government has temporarily stopped deportation flights three times since March. The last pause, which has largely remained in place with a few exceptions for “humanitarian” flights, was on April 16, after 44 deported Guatemalans on one flight tested positive for COVID-19 after being detained by ICE. Out of 995 detainees tested around the US, 449 tested positive, according to ICE.
After the second time the country pushed back on deportations, the Trump administration threatened Guatemala and any country that refused to take deportees with visa sanctions. Both governments are now working on a deportation process they can agree on, with Guatemala demanding the US improve how it screens deportees to ensure they test negative for COVID-19.
Guatemala's migration agency referred questions to the Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance, which didn't respond to requests for comment. ICE said that since the outbreak of COVID-19 it has taken steps to protect all detainees, staff, and contractors by reducing the number of people in its custody, incorporating social distancing, and isolating new admissions for 14 days, among other measures.
ICE is expected to receive more than 2,000 COVID-19 tests each month from Health and Human Services to test some immigrants before deporting them. But ICE won't have enough tests for everyone it plans to deport.
"The health and safety of migrants in our care and custody is of the highest priority for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement," the agency said in a statement. "DHS is committed to working with State Department partners and foreign governments to ensure that their citizens can return home in a safe manner that takes into account the unique challenges the COVID-19 pandemic presents to public health."
Maria’s symptoms were mild, just the fever and body aches. Speaking to BuzzFeed News over the phone and in Spanish, she said she spent about 10 days at a hospital, but was then sent to a temporary facility at the Parque de la Industria convention center in Guatemala City, where conditions are so bad that it sparked confrontations between patients and hospital staff.
It's as if they just threw a bunch of beds into a warehouse, Maria said about the makeshift hospital. She said she wasn't given a painkiller for her body aches. There was no privacy. At the beginning, the lights were only turned off from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Now, the lights are on 24 hours a day, because at least one person escaped from the facility, Nómada, a Guatemalan news outlet, reported.
Another Guatemalan man, who was deported from ICE custody and is currently inside the same temporary hospital, described the facility as very hot during the day because there's no air-conditioning and then very cold at night. He confirmed that the lights are never turned off. BuzzFeed News agreed not to identify him because he was still quarantined there.
Food often arrives late and is often not enough, the man said. He was detained at the US border and sent to ICE detention for about 25 days before being deported.
While in US detention in different facilities in California and Arizona, he said detainees weren't given masks and ICE didn't implement social distancing measures. Before being deported, he and other detainees were taken to the airport only to be sent back to detention twice.
"They treated us like we were worthless," he said in Spanish.
He has since tested positive for COVID-19 in Guatemala.
Nómada also posted a video of patients asking officials why a sick man was hit after yelling and not listening to orders from authorities. A patient told Nómada that the man had started screaming after having been ignored by medical staff and had then been handcuffed by national police, who also hit him on his chest and back. Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei went on national TV to deny the account, saying the scuffle had been the result of a mass escape attempt and no one had been struck — only one man had been handcuffed.
On Wednesday, Giammattei said there were 585 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country. At least 99 of them were people who were deported from the US — about 17% of the total cases.
While the deportation flights remain on pause, Guatemalans set to be deported are still held in ICE custody. Advocates are pushing for immigrants to be released from detention into the US, and ICE has so far released nearly 700 immigrants it considered to be medically vulnerable. And a federal judge last week ordered ICE to conduct a nationwide review for more vulnerable immigrants in its custody. ICE leaders had previously said they don't plan to release any more detainees than they already have.
When Maria was in ICE custody, she said all she could think about was getting out before she contracted the coronavirus from a fellow detainee.
Maria said she ended up unintentionally signing her deportation order, believing it was a way to continue her immigration process in the US. She was on a plane the next day.
On April 20, there were 4,613 Guatemalans in ICE custody, according to a letter from the country's ministry of foreign relations. There were also 1,105 children in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Attorneys have been filing lawsuits to get immigrants in ICE detention released with some success. It still leaves thousands in detention without a way out — with deportation not even a possibility.
Asylum-seekers and immigrants shouldn't have to choose between being deported or staying in ICE custody, said Joachim Marjon, an attorney at the ACLU of New Mexico who has filed a lawsuit seeking the release of detainees at high risk of contracting COVID-19.
"The option shouldn't be to go back to the place you were seeking asylum from or die here," Marjon told BuzzFeed News. "We as a country are aware of the dangerous nature of this virus and we've already seen how it spreads through facilities like detention centers… The only way to mitigate the danger is to depopulate them."
ICE custody is civil detention and isn't meant to be punitive, Marjon said, and immigrants should be given the chance to be released while they're waiting for their case to conclude even if it means wearing an ankle monitor.
"We're essentially holding people awaiting the result of their case on a beach when we know there is a tidal wave coming," Marjon said.
Alex Mensing, a spokesperson for advocacy group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, said the US should release all people in ICE custody with at least temporary legal status.
"Guatemala needs to push back on the US forcing its people to get sick and then deporting them," Mensing told BuzzFeed News. “Also Guatemala needs to take responsibility for its citizens and receive them with adequate medical care."
Juan José Hurtado Paz y Paz, director of Asociacion Pop No'j, a nonprofit that works with deported immigrants in Guatemala and indigenous communities, said organizations in Central America have also been advocating for releasing people.
The Trump administration is exporting the virus, Hurtado said.
"They don't care about these people's lives. They're disposable," Hurtado told BuzzFeed News. "Exporting the virus is disrespectful to life."
People are being sent back to a poor country that is even less equipped than the US to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Hurtado said. Many of the people who immigrated from Guatemala to the US come from poor rural areas where people have to walk for hours to carry water back home. These families often sleep in close quarters with several family members.
"They are returning to the same conditions they fled from and that is not just physical violence, but structural violence in marginalized communities," Hurtado said. "Only now they're returning to even more precarious conditions because of the coronavirus."
Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and migrant rights in the Washington Office of Latin America, said it's very unlikely ICE will release more people on its own despite the growing number of COVID-19 cases in detention.
"The efforts the US has taken have been clearly haphazard if so many people are testing positive when they get back home," Meyer told BuzzFeed News.
ICE told BuzzFeed News in a statement that any detainee scheduled for deportation who failed to pass a screening by a medical provider for COVID-19 symptoms was denied boarding. But people who are sick due to the coronavirus don’t always show symptoms.
Guatemala doesn't have a lot of chips to bargain with the Trump administration, but officials should at least be appealing to the US's humanitarian interests, Meyer said. The Guatemalan government should also ensure it has a process for accepting deportees that doesn't result in asymptomatic people spreading the virus and should quarantine them in better conditions when necessary, Meyer said.
In the 1990s, the US deported hundreds of MS-13 gang members to unstable conditions in Central America still recovering from civil wars that allowed the criminal organization to flourish. The gang's violent tactics, poverty, and drought have in recent years prompted a sharp rise in migration to the US that the Trump administration has tried to stop.
"Now we could be exporting a public health crisis, and we do have that responsibility to ensure we do everything possible to avoid that from happening," Meyer said. "Even if the interest is only in future flows, it is in the best interest of the US to make sure these countries are stable and able to address this crisis effectively."
People sent back to Guatemala also have to contend with the stigma against deportees.
This month in Quetzaltenango, a city in Guatemala's western highlands, residents threatened to burn down a temporary shelter housing recent deportees, afraid they would spread the virus. In another case, residents from the lakeside community of Santa Catarina Palopó in Guatemala tried to attack the mayor and a man who had been deported despite having paperwork stating he had tested negative for COVID-19.
It was another reason Maria declined to be identified for this story: She didn't want neighbors in the rural area she had moved back to to know she had recently been deported.
"People look at you as if you're some strange thing and fear you because you went through the deportation process," Maria said. "I've felt vulnerable everywhere I've been through this whole process, all the way from the US to Guatemala.”