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Fear Among Immigrant Detainees Spreads As Coronavirus Outbreaks Hit ICE Detention Centers

"At this point we're just waiting to be next because the virus is passed so easily," one detainee told BuzzFeed News.

Posted on April 10, 2020, at 8:13 p.m. ET

Gregory Bull / AP

Men sit in the sun in a room for mental health patients in the health ward at the Otay Mesa immigration detention center in 2010.

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Oswaldo, an asylum-seeker from El Salvador detained at an ICE facility in California who has asthma, fears what will happen if he contracts the coronavirus and needs one of the nation's limited number of ventilators.

The anxious 28-year-old is scared that as an immigrant in US custody, he won't be a priority and worries it will be COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, that ultimately kills him instead of the violence he tried to flee. Oswaldo, who declined to use his full name fearing retaliation, is one of more than 33,000 immigrants held by ICE in a network of jails that has seen cases of coronavirus increase by the day.

As of Friday afternoon, there were at least 61 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among immigrant detainees held by ICE, according to the agency. But a few jails have been hit particularly hard.

The Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, where Oswaldo is held, has the most, with 10 detainees contracting the coronavirus. Oswaldo is in a unit of more than 40 men, one of whom has a cough and another, headaches. Both are symptoms of COVID-19, but he said they haven’t been tested to be sure.

"At this point, we're just waiting to be next because the virus is passed so easily," Oswaldo told BuzzFeed News in Spanish. "We're all scared."

The conditions described by detainees and immigrant advocates highlight the health threats posed by the highly contagious disease within ICE custody. The agency has attempted to assure congressional officials and the public that it is carefully examining the issue and has even released certain “vulnerable detainees,” but advocates said there are inherent problems within the detention facilities — like a lack of necessary space to accommodate proper social distancing guidelines — to safeguard from potentially deadly outbreaks.

Elliot Spagat / AP

A vehicle drives into the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego in 2017.

In the meantime, those within the sprawling network of hundreds of private and local jails that hold the more than 33,000 immigrants have reported a growing sense of panic. And advocates have been pushing ICE to release more immigrants with underlying medical issues and to scale back arrests, saying detention facilities are ripe for mass infections and casualties.

Oswaldo said that in addition to being worried about catching COVID-19 from a fellow detainee, he was concerned about guards who interact with immigrants because they move throughout the detention center and could unknowingly bring the virus from outside.

CoreCivic, which operates the facility under a contract with ICE, said it also has six confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus among employees at Otay Mesa.

On its website, CoreCivic said it encouraged employees to socially distance, but it is not a requirement and Oswaldo said the guards aren’t staying the recommended 6 feet away from others.

Agency officials have said that high-level experts are monitoring best practices and issuing guidelines on when to isolate certain detainees and to screen those entering facilities. In many situations, detention officials are separating immigrants who have been exposed to the virus and keeping them isolated.

"The health, welfare and safety of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities," the agency said in a statement.

Oswaldo said he was one of 12 people in his unit who have participated in hunger strikes in recent weeks to protest their detention during the coronavirus pandemic. Oswaldo said they would take the food from guards but refuse to eat it. If they don't take the food, they’re threatened with solitary confinement, he said.

Advocates said there have been hunger strikes at the Otay Mesa facility since April 3 with a fluctuating number of participants. On Friday, ICE said there was only one detainee at Otay Mesa who was on a hunger strike after refusing meals on April 6.

On Sunday morning, Oswaldo said guards at Otay Mesa Detention Center took him and several other hunger strikers to "the hole," where they remained until Tuesday.

Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network, an organization that seeks to abolish immigration detention, said that in the last three weeks there have been at least 14 confirmed hunger strikes across the country in facilities that detain immigrants.

Heber, a 33-year-old detainee at Otay Mesa from El Salvador, said he has a heart arrhythmia. The asylum-seeker said there are other people at the facility with ailments such as tuberculosis and asthma who could suffer complications from COVID-19.

"It's a ticking time bomb in here," Heber told BuzzFeed News in Spanish.

Heber was sent to the Otay Mesa Detention Center on Feb. 14, and then about a month later was taken to the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in San Bernardino County a few hours away with about 38 other men. They weren't able to socially distance and weren't given masks, Heber said.

When they got off the bus, Heber was one of six ICE detainees found to have fevers. But they were later sent to a holding area with other detainees, potentially exposing them to the virus, Heber said.

Gregory Bull / AP

A man detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center stands wrapped in a blanket in a room.

On March 18, ICE moved Heber back to Otay Mesa Detention Center, where he was held for 12 days in isolation before being placed with everyone else. He said he was also taken to solitary for participating in a hunger strike.

"We are asking ICE to give us the opportunity to fight our cases from outside detention," Heber said. "We're human beings whose only crime is being in this great country without papers."

Aldo Jovani Camacho Lopez, a Mexican man detained at Pike County Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania, tested positive for COVID-19 on April 2. There have been five confirmed cases of the virus at the detention center. The facility provided him with Gatorade and multivitamins for treatment after his positive test, according to a lawsuit requesting his release. His cellmate also tested positive for the disease, according to court documents.

On April 5, he told medical staff he had difficulty breathing and felt “as though he cannot get enough air,” according to court files. He was later taken to a hospital for treatment.

His attorney, Christopher Casazza, has said that he believes others within the jail, which also houses county inmates, will come down with the illness as well.

“I honestly don’t see how the majority of the people at Pike are not going to have COVID-19 within a couple of weeks, if they don’t have it already,” Casazza said. “I am convinced everyone there is going to get COVID-19.”

Fnu Mansyur, a 42-year-old Indonesian man and former detainee who was released in recent weeks from Pike, said that up until late March, staffers at the facility were not wearing masks and gloves.

One ICE detainee currently at the facility told BuzzFeed News that immigrants were screaming and yelling for help. The number of correctional officers patrolling the facility, he said, had dwindled. Seven staffers at the jail and five ICE detainees had tested positive for the disease as of earlier this week. Two county inmates who had tested positive died.

He has noticed detainees in his unit coughing, sneezing, and appearing to be sick. In recent days, others in the facility have been quarantined and separated. There was no hand sanitizer, he said.

“We are feeling scared,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I am losing my mind.”

As of April 2, ICE had released 32 detainees from Pike County Correctional Facility, according to local officials, who wrote in a press release this week that the agency was “actively working to reduce” the population there. The jail has taken to locking down the facility as a preventive measure.

Camacho Lopez was discharged from the hospital on Thursday and was returned to Pike, his attorney said.

“What is happening here is inevitable,” said Marc Stern, a public health expert and faculty member at the University of Washington. “None of this is a surprise. Once there is an appreciable level of infection inside, depending on how quickly they isolated people and took steps, anybody would’ve feared a spread pretty quickly.”

Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press

Inmates stand in their maximum security cells at Pike County Correctional Facility in Lords Valley, Pennsylvania.

Dorien Ediger-Seto, senior attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center, said ICE had a terrible track record of providing appropriate medical care to immigrants long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I often hear people joke that if anything is wrong with you, the nurses will tell you to drink water and take ibuprofen," said Ediger-Seto on a call with reporters. "It's really not an agency that is equipped or able to provide the type of care people need on a daily basis, let alone when there is such a serious infectious disease that has brought the world to its knees."

The way people are detained at ICE detention facilities also makes it impossible for immigrants to protect themselves from the coronavirus, Ediger-Seto said.

"Deportation is already a death sentence for many of our clients. But nobody deserves to die simply for waiting for their day in court,” he added.

Ediger-Seto said there is inconsistent access to cleaning and disinfectant supplies inside facilities like Otay Mesa. Immigrants are also forced to eat in their cells near toilets, and meals are often late because fewer detainees are willing to work for $1 a day in the kitchen and risk potential infection from fellow asymptomatic workers.

In an ACLU case that has resulted in orders approving the release of detainees from Pike County Correctional Facility and York County Prison in Pennsylvania, US District Court Judge John Jones said it was “clear” protective measures at the two prisons were not working.

“We can only expect the number of positive COVID-19 cases to increase in the coming days and weeks, and we cannot leave the most fragile among us to face that growing danger unprotected,” Jones wrote in a court filing.

ICE has identified 600 detainees for possible release because they have been deemed “vulnerable” to the coronavirus, according to an email sent to congressional staffers on Tuesday.

More than 160 have already been released as part of the effort.

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