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Opinion

Op-Ed:  We were left to sicken and die from the coronavirus in immigration detention. Here’s how I got out

Hunger strikers at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield on April 10 protest the lack of protection against the coronavirus in immigration detention centers.
(Courtesy of the California Committee for Immigrant Liberation)

I consider myself an American. I came to the United States from Mexico when I was a teenager. I’m now 37 years old. My wife and son are U.S. citizens. For years, I ran my own mechanic shop in New Jersey. I have paid taxes and nearly all my family members live in and around New Jersey, including my brothers, mother, cousins, nephews and nieces. This is the only home I know.

My life shattered on Nov. 21, 2019, when immigration officers picked me up right after I had dropped off my 5-year-old son at school. Although I had been living in the U.S. for almost 20 years, I had not managed to get the right paperwork to be here. The immigration officers took me to the Elizabeth Detention Center — a prison-like structure run by the private corporation CoreCivic. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to my son or my wife.

I spent five months at the Elizabeth Detention Center. As the coronavirus pandemic hit our nation and New Jersey became an epicenter, I grew increasingly worried because neither I nor hundreds of immigration detainees had any way to protect ourselves from getting sick.

I first heard rumors of COVID-19 in February. I heard it was a highly contagious illness, that it was worse than the flu, and that it was killing many people. The detention center personnel told us nothing. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement supervisor told us not to believe the news, that the danger of the virus was exaggerated. But by mid-March, we started hearing that someone in the medical unit was showing symptoms.

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The Elizabeth Detention Center has capacity for just over 300 people. At nearly all times, I was packed into a large room with other immigrants. Our beds were close together, with only two to three feet between them. We shared toilets, showers, sinks, communal surfaces and breathing air. We did not have hand sanitizer or masks. We could not disinfect our shared surfaces. We could not maintain any meaningful distance among us, let alone six feet of distance. We were never permitted outside; there is no meaningful outdoor space.

As the days passed, we grew increasingly anxious about COVID-19, especially those of us who had health issues or were older. I have bad asthma and I wasn’t alone in wanting to get out. Everyone wanted out. I didn’t have a lawyer, but I was in regular contact with pro bono attorneys who wanted to help me.

Then, on March 13, the detention center halted all visitations, including by attorneys. On March 19, an ICE employee at the facility tested positive for the virus. Still, the facility staff refused to communicate with us about the pandemic, their plans to keep us safe, or whether we might be released. We still did not have access to hand sanitizer or masks to protect ourselves. The facility’s supervisors told us that we couldn’t have any hand sanitizer. The dormitories were still packed with approximately 40 people per unit.

One day in March, I watched a detainee collapse. He was taken away. I do not know if he had the virus. In mid-March, I was diagnosed with bronchitis. I could hear rattling noises in my chest and could not seem to get enough air.

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My fellow detainees and I worried we were being left to die. Some of us, in desperation, decided to go on a hunger strike on March 20. The guards then put me in isolation to punish me. While in the box, I felt some relief to be away from the masses.

My breathing continued to worsen. I finally ate food again on March 25, hoping that would improve my condition. On March 31, a pro bono lawyer made an emergency request for my release, which immigration officials denied even though I had such trouble breathing that I needed treatment with an albuterol machine. On April 3, an immigration judge denied my request for release on bond.

Every way I turned seemed to be another dead end. The guards commented disapprovingly when they heard I had been talking to the media about our dire predicament. No help came for us.

I had one last hope for release. I had been included in a group habeas petition filed before the federal district court in New Jersey. Thankfully, I was let out on April 20 because a federal judge determined that COVID-19 posed a particularly serious health risk to me and four others and ordered our immediate release.

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I have since returned to my family and isolated myself for 14 days. I lost my mechanic shop while I was in detention because I wasn’t able to pay rent, but I am grateful to be released. I’m now in the process of appealing my deportation order.

Day and night, I worry about the thousands of immigrants who remain detained nationwide in cramped facilities. On Wednesday, a man from El Salvador, who had been held in the Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego since January, died from COVID-19.

There are perhaps 150 people still in the Elizabeth Detention Center. At each stage of the court process, the detention center officials said that detainees were able to socially distance and that we had access to hand sanitizer and the means to protect ourselves. None of that was true.

ICE keeps fighting to keep people in detention. I got lucky and managed to get out, but others will get sick and die from COVID-19, paying the ultimate price for getting caught up in our civil immigration detention system. This is not right.

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All those in immigration detention who have not been convicted of violent crimes should be immediately released. This is what common sense, the Constitution and basic humanity requires.

Nicolas Morales lives in New Jersey with his family.


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