A 61-year-old Mexican man died in ICE custody from COVID-19 more than two months after a federal judge ordered his release from prison, saying his ability to defend himself from severe injury or death from the disease would be “substantially diminished” while locked up due to his chronic illness, records obtained by BuzzFeed News show.
Cipriano Chavez-Alvarez, who had lymphoma, diabetes, kidney disease, and hypertension, is the seventh ICE detainee to die this year after contracting the disease. In a statement on his death, ICE officials documented his compassionate release from federal custody due to his medical conditions but did not explain that the judge had specifically released him due to concerns over contracting COVID-19.
The Mexican immigrant, who had a final order of deportation, was convicted in 1993 of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine and was sentenced to life in federal prison because of two prior felony drug convictions.
But on July 15, Neil Wake, a federal judge in Arizona, ordered him released from prison due to the fact that he had a “chronic illness from which he is not expected to recover and the defendant’s ability to provide self-care against serious injury or death as a result of COVID-19 is substantially diminished, within the environment of a correctional facility, by the chronic condition itself.”
Wake’s order did not require ICE to avoid detaining him. The judge noted that Chavez-Alvarez — known as Martel Alvarez-Chavez in federal court — was expected to be turned over to ICE and deported upon his release. The judge also wrote that if Chavez-Alvarez were allowed to stay in the US, he would be subjected to 10 years of supervised release.
Chavez-Alvarez’s family, along with immigrant advocates and medical experts, believe his death is emblematic of the risks that older detainees face in ICE custody due to the inherent problems within jails — like a lack of necessary space to accommodate proper social distancing guidelines. ICE officials have maintained that they are committed to protecting those vulnerable to the disease and have instituted measures, including releasing detainees, to help prevent outbreaks.
“This case illustrates the risks we’ve been talking about for months. They are not theoretical; they are real. They affect real people and result in real deaths,” said Marc Stern, a public health expert and faculty member at the University of Washington.
Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney with the ACLU, said Chavez-Alvarez’s death was “entirely preventable and foreseeable.”
“This tragedy is made even worse as a federal court, taking all factors into account, had already ordered him released from federal custody in light of his medical vulnerabilities,” Cho said. “At the end of the day, ICE’s heartless practices show it cannot be trusted to protect people’s lives.”
Chavez-Alvarez’s daughter, Martha Chavez, was 8 when her father was imprisoned, and said that he had been terrified of contracting the coronavirus while in custody due to his age and chronic conditions. In a filing requesting his release from federal prison, attorneys for Chavez-Alvarez said he had diabetes and “severe chronic” kidney disease that had resulted in only 19% function to the right kidney.
“He said that if he contracted the disease, he wouldn’t see another day,” Chavez said in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
On July 15, it appeared that those fears would be in the past. He called her that day from the Edgefield Federal Correctional Institution in South Carolina: “Daughter, I’m leaving.”
Chavez and her five siblings began to make plans to reconnect with their father after so many years apart. Despite his imprisonment, she said she spoke with her father every day about life, her job as a caregiver to a child with a disability, and how the family was doing.
“He always believed he was going to get out,” she said. “We talked about what we were going to do. When we were going to meet. We had so many plans. And then…none of that happened.”
On July 31, Chavez-Alvarez was transferred directly from federal prison into ICE custody at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, the facility facing allegations of forced procedures on women and insufficient protections from COVID-19. After several days, he was transferred from the facility to the Stewart Detention Center, where two immigrants had already died after contracting COVID-19, for deportation to Mexico.
Stern, the professor from Washington state, and other medical experts have warned that transfers between facilities increase the risk of spreading the disease. ICE officials have been under fire from immigrant advocates and civil rights attorneys who believe the agency is doing an insufficient job in releasing those who are vulnerable to the disease, while also failing to protect those who are in custody.
The agency has attempted to assure Congress and the public that it has carefully examined the issue and has even released certain “vulnerable" detainees.
Chavez had held out hope that her father would be released to her in Phoenix, but even after that did not happen she hoped his deportation to Mexico would be quick. Chavez began to worry when she heard about the transfer to Stewart, especially after she googled the facility. In August, a 70-year-old Costa Rican man became the second to die after being detained in the Lumpkin, Georgia, facility following a positive test for the coronavirus.
“My biggest fear was that he wasn’t going to make it,” she said.
Chavez’s conversations with her father began to worsen after his arrival at Stewart. He complained about the conditions and the lack of social distancing. He didn’t eat for several days. Soon, he complained that he had a cold.
“I said, ‘Father, why aren’t they deporting you?’ He was confused. I asked, ‘Are they protecting you?’ He told me no,” she recalled. By mid-August, she learned that her father had been taken to a hospital, his condition had worsened, and that he had contracted COVID-19.
In her last conversation with her father on Aug. 17, he was struggling to speak as he gasped for air. Chavez-Alvarez maintained that he did not have COVID-19. Her daughter believed he was in denial.
“I love you, dad,” she told him. “Ask God for strength.”
He sounded terrified, she thought to herself.
“I told him ‘Dad, everything is going to be okay,’” Chavez said. “Nothing was okay.”
Her father died Monday at a hospital in Columbus, Georgia.
Hospital officials said the preliminary cause of death was cardiopulmonary arrest, secondary to complications of COVID-19, according to ICE.
This week, the House Homeland Security Committee released a report that found people detained by ICE are often given deficient medical care, and that detention centers use segregation as a threat against immigrants. The report was based on tours of eight ICE detention centers, interviews, and facility inspection reports. The committee also found that ICE and its contractors frequently demonstrated an indifference to the mental and physical care of immigrants in their custody.
In fiscal year 2020, which ends Sept. 30, 20 immigrants, including Chavez-Alvarez, have so far died in ICE custody, the highest annual number since 2005.
“After serving nearly 30 years in jail, we finally had some light shine, and to end like this is just tragic,” Chavez said as she cried. “I think [ICE] is fully responsible. They’ve had previous deaths. How many deaths do they need to do things correctly? These are humans.”
Zoe Tillman contributed reporting to this story.