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A 57-year-old man from El Salvador who had tested positive for COVID-19 died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement Custody in Southern California on Wednesday, according to an internal government report obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The man, Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, had been in ICE custody at the Otay Mesa Detention Center near the California border with Mexico since January and tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, on April 24.
The San Diego County medical examiner's office said he died of acute respiratory failure due to pneumonia resulting from COVID-19. The man is the first to die in ICE custody after testing positive for COVID-19. He had been taken to a hospital’s intensive care unit due to complications from the disease in late April.
Mejia, who had hypertension and self-reported diabetes, had been denied a bond to be released from custody on April 15 by an immigration judge, according to the report. On April 24, he was taken to the Paradise Valley Hospital in National City due to symptoms related to COVID-19. He tested positive for the disease that same day. Three days later, on April 27, he was taken to the hospital’s ICU and placed on a ventilator, according to the report.
ICE officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the death of Mejia, who became the 11th immigrant to die in government custody this fiscal year. As of Wednesday, 705 detainees had tested positive for the virus, 132 of whom were located at the Otay Mesa Detention Center. The agency has tested 1,460 detainees.
The Otay Mesa facility has become a hotspot for COVID-19, though the coronavirus has spread at other ICE detention centers and jails throughout the US.
As the number of positive cases started to increase, immigrants at Otay Mesa facility complained about a lack of masks, cleaning supplies, and gloves to guard against the coronavirus. Immigrants told BuzzFeed News they were confined to close quarters and unable to distance themselves from other detainees or guards who moved throughout the jail. At one point a group of women at the immigration jail demanding masks were threatened with pepper spray.
In April, the ACLU — which announced the death on Wednesday — filed a lawsuit against ICE and CoreCivic, the private company that operates the facility, aiming to reduce the population at the facility. Medical experts and immigrant advocates have warned that the highly contagious disease puts detainees at risk. Last week, a federal judge ordered the agency to begin assessing people who were vulnerable to the disease for potential release.
“We extend our sincere condolences to the family of the person who passed away in ICE custody at Otay Mesa this morning,” Monika Y. Langarica, immigrants’ rights staff attorney at the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, said in a statement. “We filed a lawsuit demanding the immediate release of medically vulnerable people from Otay Mesa weeks ago, urging that release under these circumstances is a matter of life and death.Today one of those people has died because ICE refused to release him when he still had a chance to survive this deadly virus.”
In March, ICE officials began assessing their inmate population to locate “vulnerable” detainees, including those who are over 60 or pregnant. So far, they have released more than 900 detainees, and detention numbers are the lowest they have been in several years.
Isabel, a 21-year-old Guatemalan detainee, who declined to use their full name fearing retaliation, said immigrants at the Otay Mesa Detention Center were told Wednesday that an immigrant from the facility who tested positive for COVID-19 died at a nearby hospital.
"They wouldn't even let us ask questions," Isabel told BuzzFeed News. "We're all anxious and depressed here."
Isabel, who tested positive for COVID-19, said immigrants are now being given one mask every two weeks, but they often fall apart before receiving new ones.