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A 34-year-old Guatemalan man who tested positive for COVID-19 died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody at a Georgia hospital on Sunday, according to an internal government report obtained by BuzzFeed News.
Santiago Baten-Oxlaj, 34, had been in ICE custody at Stewart Detention Center, in Lumpkin, since early March and had been granted a voluntary departure to Guatemala, ICE later confirmed in a press release.
Baten-Oxlaj was arrested on March 2 at a probation office in Marietta, Georgia, "pursuant to his conviction for driving under the influence," ICE said. On March 26, an immigration judge granted him voluntary departure. "At the time of his death, Baten was awaiting departure from the United States," ICE added.
On April 17, he was admitted to a local hospital for treatment of decreased oxygen saturation levels, hospital officials tested the man for COVID-19 and the result was positive.
On Sunday, he died at the hospital, according to the report, which listed his preliminary cause of death as COVID-19.
ICE said it "is undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases."
His death comes weeks after a 57-year-old man in ICE custody in San Diego died after testing positive for COVID-19. The San Diego County medical examiner's office said the man, Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, died of acute respiratory failure due to pneumonia resulting from COVID-19. He was the first immigrant in ICE custody to die of the disease.
As of May 16, 1,201 immigrant detainees have tested positive for the disease in ICE custody out of 2,394 who have been tested.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, medical experts and immigrant advocates have warned that the highly contagious coronavirus would put detainees at risk. They have pointed to the inherent problems within jails — like a lack of necessary space to accommodate proper social distancing guidelines — that put people in danger. Advocates have used these arguments as a way to push for more releases.
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.
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.
Federal judges across the country have ordered the release of nearly 400 ICE detainees since the beginning of the pandemic, citing the preexisting medical conditions of the immigrants released and the potential for life-threatening complications from COVID-19.
"COVID-19 does not respect prison walls. The raging global pandemic outside of Calhoun County Correctional Facility and a confirmed case within the facility pose a serious risk to those inside,” wrote US District Judge Judith E. Levy, according to the Detroit News, in an order releasing two immigrants from custody in one case. “For plaintiffs, the emergence of COVID-19 at the Calhoun County Correctional Facility transforms a generalized yet substantial risk into a specific and immediate risk," Levy added.
"The number of COVID-19 cases in detention facilities nationwide further highlights the stark reality that communal confinement, even with the precautions defendants have employed, creates a significant risk of COVID-19 infection."
Sunday’s death comes also as congressional officials press ICE officials for more details on their efforts to limit the spread of the disease within the local and private jails across the country that hold immigrant detainees.
“Despite our repeated attempts to secure information, ICE has failed to fully respond to our requests, casting serious doubt on its preparedness for this crisis,” wrote Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney and Rep. Jamie Raskin, Democrats on the House oversight committee, in a letter to DHS officials earlier this month. “ICE has failed to take this crisis seriously [...] At each step of the way, the agency has waited rather than acted, prioritizing continued detention of thousands of non-violent detainees regardless of the life-and-death consequences for immigrants, employees, contractors, or their families.”
ICE officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the death.