Detainees at the Port Isabel Detention Center in the Rio Grande Valley have been concerned about a potential COVID-19 outbreak at the facility for months, as the novel coronavirus continues to spread in Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities across the country.
Immigrant rights activists have called for large-scale releases and said detention facilities are either hotspots or hotspots waiting to happen — not just for the immigrants, but also for detention center employees and the families and communities they come home to.
At the Port Isabel Detention Center some detainees are on a hunger strike to protest the conditions they said make an outbreak inevitable.
The detainees said some employees at the facility don’t wear proper protective equipment when interacting with them, and that it’s hard to practice social distancing because they live in close quarters.
“The coronavirus is here at the facility,” said a Cuban detainee at the facility who TPR spoke with over the phone. “We are on a hunger strike. Me and another Cuban.”
He said he and the other detainee started a hunger strike at the end of May, but they were brought to El Poso — The Hole — which is essentially solitary confinement.
“They sent us here for participating in the hunger strike and to discourage others from joining,” he said.
From yesterday, outside the Port Isabel Detention Center. People currently in detention talking on the phone to us about the spread of COVID-19 inside the center. #RGV pic.twitter.com/FNPQZStvTS— Pharr From Heaven (Eduardo Martinez) (@PharrFromHeaven) June 8, 2020
Norma Herrera is with the RGV Equal Voice Network. She’s been in touch with the hunger strikers and other detainees at the facility.
“The latest information we have coming from people detained is that there are nine dorms under quarantine,” Herrera said. “They estimate that there are an average of 35 people per dorm. That’s approximately 315 people under quarantine right now.”
ICE said in a statement that it “fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference. ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers.”
The agency did not comment on how many dorms are currently under quarantine.
Herrera said the detainees have told her the virus is still spreading at the facility because ICE keeps moving people from dorm to dorm.
“Even though people are expressing concerns and saying no we don’t want to move, we don’t want to get infected,” Herrera said. “And then the people that are moved into their dorms end up showing symptoms the very next day.”
ICE said it tests detainees showing symptoms and medically isolates those who test positive and that detainee relocations are necessary for continued safety.
The agency is also making use of a practice called cohorting, which involves housing detainees together who are believed to have been exposed to an infected person but are asymptomatic.
“Ideally, cases should be isolated individually, and close contacts should be quarantined individually,” ICE said in a statement. “However, some correctional facilities and detention centers do not have enough individual cells to do so and must consider cohorting as an alternative.”
“When I talk to people, sometimes they’ll even say, 'I would just rather be deported than be left here to die. I don’t want to be left here to die,'” Herrera said. “If we’re going to die we should be with our families.”
A detainee who was at the facility since February said that last month — around the time when the facility confirmed its first positive COVID-19 case — he asked ICE to quickly deport him because he was afraid of contracting the virus at the facility and dying.
“I suffer from asthma and I cannot breathe well,” he said.
He didn’t want his name used because he feared ICE would retaliate against him for speaking out.
His health condition is something that his wife was concerned about while he was detained.
“When he went into the facility he had with him asthma medication and allergy medication and he needs that machine so he can sleep and get the proper oxygenation he needs, but he’s been telling me more than a few times that they didn’t have the medicine and that the machine was not cleaned properly and they didn’t allow me to go and bring him his own machine,” she said.
She also didn’t want her name used because she feared speaking out will put her husband in danger while in ICE detention.
Her husband and other detainees said they have had trouble getting information from officials at the Port Isabel Detention Center about what exactly was happening with COVID-19 at the facility.
“When my husband called me, he also told me, can you please find out more about it because the only thing we know is that there’s somebody, there’s a person that’s been already contracted the virus here at the facility, but no one says anything and nobody talks about it and nobody gives us any information,” she said.
She said having her husband in detention has been difficult for their family. She worries about what will happen when he’s deported and arrives in his country of origin because he doesn’t know anybody there and has lived in the U.S. most of his life.
“It’s hard for the family that stays in the U.S.A,” she said. “It’s hard for the inmates because they don’t know what’s going to happen, but we have to hope for the best.”
She said her husband ended up at the Port Isabel Detention Center after he was approached by immigration officials at a public place near the border.
“He was stopped, he was questioned and whatever paperwork that he had with him, they didn’t believe that was his identity, so they took him in and they went through the process and they discovered that he was not an American citizen,” she said.
Her husband was deported back to his country of origin a couple days ago and is now in quarantine there.
“We wished that at least during this time of the virus we would have been together,” she said. “It’s a separation of the family, but we’re trying to hang in there.”
Even though her husband is no longer at the facility, she still worries about the other detainees that remain there.
ICE said as of June 15, there is one person participating in a hunger strike.
“ICE explains the negative health effects of not eating to our detainees who remain under close medical observation by ICE or contract medical providers,” ICE said in a statement and provided a link to its detention standards pertaining to hunger strikers. “For the detainee’s health and safety, ICE carefully monitors the food and water intake of those detainees identified as being on a hunger strike.”
Local organizations and Congressman Filemon Vela of South Texas have sent letters to ICE and the Department of Homeland Security demanding the release of detainees for the safety of the detainees themselves, ICE employees and the general public.
“The high number of individuals quarantined, along with previously reported conditions of overcrowding in the facility is a testament to ICE’s failure to adequately follow CDC guidance and recommendations to fight the spread of COVID-19,” said one of the letters that Vela sent earlier this month.
A lawsuit, which was filed in April, called for the release of medically vulnerable detainees at the Port Isabel Detention Center and two other South Texas facilities. The suit involved a 78-year-old man at the Port Isabel facility. He was eventually released last month.
Update: We won! Raul is finally out of detention. ICE locked him up w/o filing an NTA for nearly 6 weeks. Thanks you to the Herculean efforts of @TXCivilRights, @MALDEF & others he is now safe in isolation at home as PIDC gets its 2nd positive COVID19 case. https://t.co/B02x9qMO06— Carlos Moctezuma Garcia (@immigrattorney) May 30, 2020
A complaint was filed to the Office of Inspector General earlier this month that called for emergency action involving a Ugandan pastor who has diabetes.
There are 36 confirmed cases at the facility as of June 15, and advocates worry that Port Isabel will follow the trend of other facilities around the country that have become major COVID-19 hotspots.
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