Feverish and coughing, Gabriel lay on the top bunk in a cramped cell he shared with another immigrant detainee at the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New Jersey. His body ached and, as the hours passed last Sunday, he got increasingly nauseated and dizzy.
Like his fellow ICE detainees, Gabriel was worried the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, would penetrate the jail after witnessing news reports of the global pandemic.
“I thought I was going to die and leave my daughter alone,” Gabriel told BuzzFeed News in an interview through fits of deep, dry coughs. The 31-year-old restaurant worker recalled the conversations he had had with his 8-year-old daughter during his month in custody. Family members described how the young girl had grown despondent and ignored meals after her father was arrested by ICE agents on Feb. 12.
“When are you coming home, daddy?” she would ask. Soon, he would say, soon. He promised.
“I thought I was going to die and there was a lot going through my mind: Who would watch her if I were to die?” Gabriel said.
He considered how he wasn’t even supposed to be in jail: ICE officers had arrested him after he helped them translate for his roommate, who had been targeted, a practice known as “collateral arrests” that has grown under the Trump administration. He assumed they were police officers, he said.
After Gabriel gathered the strength to leave his cell on Sunday to fill a cup with hot water for tea, he fainted on the way back and fell down a flight of stairs. His fellow immigrant detainees picked him up and urged him to get medical help: “You got it. You got coronavirus!”
Gabriel, identified here by a pseudonym, was the first confirmed case of the coronavirus within ICE custody anywhere in the nation. He did not know how he got the virus.
He was tested Monday after growing sicker, and officials got the preliminary results that evening at a local hospital. In an interview with BuzzFeed News, the 31-year-old echoed concerns of immigrant advocates pushing for ICE to release detainees from its custody to avoid the spread of the coronavirus: lack of easy, consistent access to medical staff, tight quarters, dirty conditions, and spotty communications with legal representation.
Anxiety has gripped ICE detainees inside jails across the country following news reports of the global coronavirus pandemic. Throughout March, hunger strikes and protests had swept through multiple ICE detention centers as detainees push to be released and demand better conditions.
On Thursday, a federal judge in New York City ordered a group of 10 detainees released from ICE custody in New Jersey, including at the Bergen County jail, citing inadequate conditions. “The risk that Petitioners will face a severe, and quite possibly fatal, infection if they remain in immigration detention constitutes irreparable harm warranting a TRO,” US District Court Judge Analisa Torres wrote in her order. “Respondents have exhibited, and continue to exhibit, deliberate indifference to Petitioners’ medical needs.”
Bergen County officials said allegations of poor conditions with the facility were false and that Gabriel received adequate medical care in the jail’s custody. Derek Sands, a spokesman for the sheriff’s department, cited a letter purportedly from a separate detainee thanking officials for the treatment inside the jail, which stopped intakes of ICE detainees in the wake of the positive test.
An ICE official told BuzzFeed News that the agency would continue to “prioritize” the safety of all detainees, employees, and contractors during the pandemic. Agency officials added that they are relying on guidelines set by the CDC and “detainees have access to comprehensive medical care while at the facility and any that may be isolated for COVID-19 will be seen daily by medical professionals.”
For weeks, immigrant advocates have pushed ICE to release certain immigrants with underlying medical issues from the facilities and to scale back arrests, saying detention facilities were ripe for mass infections and casualties. There are currently more than 38,000 immigrants in ICE custody within private and local jails. So far, the agency has not changed its detention practices in response to the pandemic.
“This experience underscores how unprepared ICE is for a pandemic of this magnitude and the harm ICE creates when it keeps people locked up in cages,” said his lawyer, Carolina Garcia, a staff attorney with the Bronx Defender. “Everyone in ICE needs to be released, immediately. This is a matter of life and death, and there is no time to wait."
Garcia was not initially notified that he had tested positive for COVID-19, she said.
Before he was arrested, he worked at a New York City Japanese restaurant, where he made sushi rolls. He shared caretaking of his daughter with her mother: he watched her in the mornings before school, and she watched her in evenings while he was at work. He lived a normal “peaceful” life, he said.
His circumstances changed when ICE officers came to his Manhattan apartment and arrested his roommate. Because his roommate only spoke an indigenous language, Gabriel translated for the ICE officers. Once done, the officers arrested him too, he said.
“I thought they were police,” he said. “The jackets said police. I was thinking that if I didn’t help them, I wouldn’t have been in this problem.”
Upon being taken into ICE custody at Bergen County Jail, he received soap and a roll of toilet paper. Whenever he would get low on toilet paper, other inmates would share their supplies with him. Gabriel worked in the jail’s cafeteria, serving food to his fellow detainees, a job he performed up until he began feeling sick last week.
He saw a medical staffer twice after feeling ill. The staffers took his temperature and he saw a doctor by videoconference, he said. Over the weekend, Gabriel said he tried two more times to see a medical staffer, but was unsuccessful. The jail had instituted a conditional lockdown, limiting the time when detainees can leave their cells. Jail officials told reporters last week that a correctional officer at the facility had contracted the virus, but had not exposed the detainees.
Gabriel said the conditions within the jail were challenging: it was cold and the toilet in his own area of the lockup didn't work. He was struggling with diarrhea on top of the other symptoms.
On Monday, after he was taken to the hospital in cuffs and chains, Gabriel’s worst fears were confirmed when a doctor told him he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Bergen County officials said he had a presumptive positive test that was sent to the CDC for confirmation.
Gabriel had wanted to stay in the hospital, but he was taken back to the jail, where he was quarantined and provided medical care. Detention staff brought him to the hospital once more, but returned him to the facility again.
Gabriel recalled that those in the medical ward of the jail, who he said treated him well, were not wearing masks but did wear gloves. He tried to call his attorneys during the week but was unable to multiple times, he said. Bergen County officials said that they tried to coordinate with the attorneys.
On Thursday, Gabriel was released from the jail. Outside the facility, he reunited with his child’s mother. After a few blocks, he began to feel sick and threw up multiple times. His attorney called an ambulance and he was taken to a local hospital. After receiving treatment, he was released to his sister, who lives in the Bronx, because she had a spare room he could self-quarantine in.
Jail officials said that they released him without transportation because his attorneys had pushed for him to be immediately discharged from the facility and, legally, there was nothing they could do.
Now, as Gabriel self-quarantines at his sister’s home, he thinks about the detainees who are still at the jail. He is convinced that there will be others there who contract the virus.
“That’s where I got it,” he said. “Being locked up in there is very sad. It’s dusty, it’s dirty, some of the toilets work, but others don’t. It’s really bad. I pray to God they will be OK,” he said.
He also considers his own future.
“They say this disease is one for the long haul. The place I used to work at before is closed. I have no way to pay the rent, or food for my daughter,” he said. “Where are we going to get our next meal? And I’m worried about my health — this has hit my whole body. What is going to happen to me?”