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Detained immigrants plead for masks, protection from coronavirus

Undocumented immigrants wait in a holding cell at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in New York in April 2018.
(John Moore / Getty Images)

Elsy was on the phone in an immigration detention center when guards showed up with face masks and forms for her to sign.

The asylum seeker from El Salvador and others had resorted to tearing their T-shirts to fashion face coverings after a woman in their unit tested positive for COVID-19. But the guards would not give out the masks until the detainees signed the forms, which said they could not hold the private prison company running the detention center in San Diego liable if they got the coronavirus, according to Elsy and two other detainees.

When they refused last Friday, the guards took away the masks, said Elsy, who spoke on condition that her last name be withheld for fear of retribution.

While U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has started to lower the number of detainees to reduce the risk of people getting sick, those held in immigration jails and their advocates say there’s not enough protective gear, cleaning supplies or space to allow for social distancing. They fear that the number of coronavirus cases will sharply rise in the coming weeks as it has in jails and prisons nationwide.

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The Otay Mesa Detention Center, where Elsy is held, jumped from one confirmed case last week to 12. There are 72 detainees in 12 states who tested positive and hundreds of others under quarantine.

The decision came after the ACLU and others argued that it was virtually impossible for detainees at ICE’s Adelanto facility to confer in private with their attorneys amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Detainees in at least four states say they have been denied masks, even as the White House has urged face coverings in public.

Private prison company CoreCivic, which operates Otay Mesa, denied that masks were withheld unless detainees signed waivers. Spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist said Monday that detainees were given an “acknowledgment form” that a mask alone could not protect them from the virus.

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“It was not the intent of the previous form to require detainees to relinquish all rights related to COVID-19,” Gilchrist said, adding that the company has stopped using it. “Detainees are only required to initial documentation evidencing they were issued a mask.”

While jails and prisons are releasing some nonviolent offenders, ICE says it has freed 160 people so far and instructed field offices to review the cases of people over 60 or those with certain medical conditions.

The number of people in ICE detention now totals 33,800, down from about 37,000 a few weeks ago. Though the Trump administration has effectively shut down new asylum claims during the pandemic, it’s still holding people who were apprehended months or years earlier for civil violations, including more than 5,800 people who passed government asylum screenings.

Opponents argue that ICE could release thousands of people who aren’t accused of a crime, have cleared asylum screenings or won their cases but who continue to be detained while the government appeals.

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“Immigrant detainees do not need to be in a detention center in order to be monitored by ICE,” said Margaret Cargioli, managing attorney at the Immigrant Defenders Law Center. “This pandemic can only be adequately managed if everyone is healthy and everyone is in a safe environment.”

Andrew Arthur of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors restricting immigration, argued that detainees have constant access to medical care and that ICE and prison companies have an interest in limiting the spread of the virus because “they want to continue that business of detention.”

ICE did not respond to questions about masks.

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A central problem is access to protective equipment, which even medical workers have struggled to get.

“The officers have masks and we don’t,” a woman detained at the Montgomery Processing Center north of Houston said in a video posted by the advocacy group RAICES Action. Another woman in the video holds a sign in Spanish saying she’s pregnant and fears for her baby’s life.

In Louisiana, which has become a hot spot for COVID-19 cases and where more than 6,000 immigration detainees are held mostly in rural jails, an asylum seeker said he and others confined to their unit in the Pine Prairie jail pleaded for masks and more cleaning supplies. More than 50 men sleep on bunk beds.

“We don’t have any social distance,” said the detainee from Cameroon, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “We are just living by the grace of God.”

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Four immigration jails in Louisiana, including Pine Prairie, have confirmed coronavirus cases.

In Florida, some detainees said in a complaint filed by immigrant rights groups that they had been denied masks and gloves, even when they tried to buy them in the commissary.

“I sleep on a bunk bed and am surrounded by multiple other bunk beds, all occupied by inmates. It is not possible to stay six feet away from cellmates,” Juan Carlos Alfaro Garcia, 39, said in the complaint.

Lawsuit asked for the release of four Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees who have medical conditions that put them at high risk if infected with the novel coronavirus.

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At Otay Mesa in San Diego, a detainee from El Salvador, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Jose, for fear of retribution, said jail guards had searched his cell and touched his belongings without wearing masks or gloves.

“They put the virus in here,” Jose said. “The only way we can get the virus is because they brought the virus.”

Elsy, who is seeking asylum because she said she was persecuted for her sexual orientation in El Salvador, still doesn’t have a jail-issued mask. Meanwhile, she says a guard threatened to write up her and others for tearing T-shirts to use as face coverings.

“The fear of all this makes me think that we won’t be out of here alive, but dead,” she said.


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