At an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Stewart, Georgia, Alex* shares a cell with 62 other inmates. None of them have masks or gloves. Until a few days ago, they didn’t even have soap to wash their hands.
They are scared to contract the novel coronavirus, known as covid-19, but they don’t feel confident they can protect themselves. Some detainees staged a hunger strike, demanding that guards take measures to prevent the spread of the virus among the more than 1,700 detainees in the facility.
"We are at a higher risk in these bunkers, with the beds pushed up next to each other,” a Honduran detainee at Stewart told Univision News by phone. “There is no way to say: 'Hey, we are going to isolate ourselves from this or that person.' There are more than a thousand of us in this place.”
“The officers come and go, they rotate shifts, but we don’t know if they have the disease,” he added. “They can be asymptomatic for 12, 14 days spreading the virus without us knowing it.”
Alex has been detained in this ICE detention center for two months. After he was stopped for a traffic violation in January, the police noticed he had a deportation order and turned him in. He said he and the other detainees keep up with the news. As they watch the pandemic worsen – with nearly 84,000 cases in the United States as of Thursday – they are scared. "We are really unprotected,” he said. “They don’t have the conditions to treat us here. Our lives are hanging by a thread."
In the Prairieland Detention Center in Texas, José* is in the same situation. He said he sleeps next to 80 other people. In a recent phone call, he told his wife Magaly Arrieta that when someone coughs, the detainees try to shield themselves.
"They asked for masks when we started to hear more about the coronavirus in the news,” Arrieta told Univision, adding that her husband has been in detention for two months. “But they told them ‘no,’ because they didn’t have any. They should be tested if they have a cough, but [authorities] are not doing anything about it."
In Louisiana, Karina Barzola told Univision News via email that her brother faces similar conditions in another detention center. "He tells us [by phone] that they haven't been able to wash themselves for days, that they don't have soap, and that to get a simple medicine they have to fill out a form that can take up to a week."
On Tuesday, an ICE statement confirmed what lawyers and activists warned was imminent: a 31-year-old Mexican in the Bergen County jail in Hackensack, New Jersey, became the nation’s first confirmed infection among immigrant detainees. The person was quarantined and is receiving medical care, but no additional details were provided about how he may have been infected. ICE also reported that those who were in contact with him were “cohorted” and are being monitored for symptoms.
Shortly after the statement was released, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) echoed warnings made by public health experts in recent weeks: that cases in detention facilities would soon rise drastically. "The suffering and death that will be seen is unnecessary and preventable," said Andrea Flores, the deputy director of policy for the ACLU's Equality Division, who has advocated for immediate containment measures.
ICE guidance vs. detention protocols
Despite the growing number of infections in the United States, ICE continues to make arrests, prioritizing those who "may threaten national and public security" or who have histories of violent crime. Authorities have slowed down their activity in hospitals.
According to guidance from the agency, ICE officials are “actively” working with state and local authorities to “determine if any detainee requires additional testing to combat the spread of the virus."
The agency said it has established guidelines to determine who meets criteria for the disease. Those who show symptoms – such as fever or difficulty breathing – are quarantined in rooms specially designed to contain biological agents and are monitored.
The agency explained it is working with local authorities to decide whether tests should be carried out. "Detainees without fever or respiratory symptoms who meet epidemiologic risk criteria are monitored for 14 days," it said, adding that they are placed in individual cells when space is available.
"Symptomatic detainees in isolation must wear a tight-fitting surgical mask to attend essential medical appointments," according to the ICE website, adding that medical personnel who attend to patients are notified in advance about a patient's health condition.
In the event that any individual in custody must be released, health staff “immediately notify the local public health agencies to coordinate further monitoring, if required,” it said.
Arrieta said José recently had symptoms, but was diagnosed with influenza and isolated for five days.
Alex said that authorities in his center explained at a meeting on Tuesday that new detainees must have their temperature checked and undergo a routine physical evaluation. "It’s not a coronavirus test,” he said. “After that, they integrate them into the rest of the population.”
Univision News contacted the Stewart Detention Center and was referred to ICE. The agency's headquarters in Atlanta responded that Stewart is managed by a private company "with its own protocols for reviewing and testing employees before they enter and leave. ... There is no city guideline that says everyone should wear masks and gloves," according to an ICE spokesperson, unless they are in contact with people with the flu, a cough, a cold or tuberculosis.
Regarding detainees, the spokesperson underscored information that exists in written protocols: if someone has a fever, they should be quarantined. He said he couldn't speak for Stewart specifically.
In the case of Prairieland, which is managed by LaSalle Corrections, an employee of the private company explained to Univision by phone that they are following protocols given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but refused to provide more details.
ICE has confirmed one case of COVID-19 among employees and personnel working in detention facilities. The case occurred at the Elizabeth Center in New Jersey and was "an administrative employee who does not routinely interact with detainees" and had been quarantined of his own free will. He’s now receiving treatment. "Currently no detainee or employee has symptoms of coronavirus at this facility," the spokesperson said.
“It’s a time bomb”
In recent days, a number of people – including a former ICE director and immigration activists – have demanded that steps be taken to ensure that a crisis does not break out from the spread of the coronavirus in detention centers.
This week, the Southern Poverty Law Center along with other lawyers and human rights organizations filed an emergency motion for preliminary injunction in federal court seeking immediate medical protections and release for the nearly 40,000 people in ICE custody, pointing out that facilities remain overcrowded and that even detainees with pre-existing conditions don’t have access to soap in many cases.
“If ICE cannot or will not take the steps immediately necessary to ensure high-risk individuals are protected from the virus – including timely access to qualified and necessary healthcare – ICE must release them for the safety of the detainees, detention facility staff and the public in general,” it stated.
Ezequiel Hernández, an immigration attorney in Arizona, said detainees are still being asked to be represented in person in detention centers. "If I come from outside and I have the virus, I can spread it to my client and 80 other people," he said. Hernández is among those seeking to suspend legal proceedings for the time being so that migrants can be well represented.
"It is a time bomb,” immigration attorney Roger Asmar said in an interview with Univision News correspondent Pedro Ultreras. “The first person to become infected will transmit this virus to all those who are detained and it will spread immensely.”
John Sandwer, former acting director of ICE during the Obama administration, wrote a letter published by media outlets such as The Atlantic explaining that the design of the agency's facilities does not allow for social distancing, one of the key recommendations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
"The administration must do more," Sandwer wrote, acknowledging that limiting arrests to those with serious criminal records "is a first step."
"It must release the thousands of nonviolent, low-flight-risk detainees currently in ICE custody," he added, which currently make up the majority of those arrested.
A review of ICE detainee data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) conducted by Univision News in July 2019 showed that of the 47,486 people in federal immigration custody at the time, nearly 30,000 had no criminal record; 9,310 had committed minor violations and 6,186 had committed serious crimes.
"ICE can quickly reduce the detained population without endangering our communities," Sandwer wrote. "The large-scale release of detainees doesn’t mean that undocumented immigrants should get a free pass either. Those who are released can and should continue to go through the deportation process. ICE can employ electronic monitoring and other tools to ensure their appearance at mandated hearings and remove them from the country when appropriate.”
Arrieta, Jose’s wife, said lawyers sought to get her husband released on bail at a February hearing, fearing that coronavirus would worsen. "They denied him bail. The judge said there was a risk of escape," said Arrieta, whose husband was detained during a sting operation while he sought to buy sex.
Individual hearings in immigration courts are suspended until at least April 10. José was due to appear March 19.
Alex, who was turned over to ICE in January after a traffic violation, still doesn't understand why he and many others in detention have not been released on bail.
*The last names of the detainees interviewed for this story have been withheld to protect their identities and prevent retaliation by authorities.
To contact the reporters, write to them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Journalist Jorge Cancino also contributed to this story.