COVID-19 Outbreaks May Arise From Immigrant Detention Centers, Doctors Say

More than 4,000 doctors are urging U.S. Immigration and Customs officials to release individuals and families from immigration detention due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

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Doctors fear a wave of new infections will explode into communities around ICE detention centers. ICE began testing detainees in February. So far, more than half of those detainees tested positive for the virus.  Last week, Carlos Escobar-Mejia, a 57-year-old man, died in the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, where 147 detainees have been infected.  

“Every day that passes the situation is more urgent,” said Dr. Ian Kim, a family physician in Sacramento, and one of the doctors who signed an open letter urging ICE to release its detainees.  “There's a lot of evidence that these ICE detention centers are incredibly bad at preventing infectious disease,” he said.

In 2018, ICE medical staff detected five cases of the mumps at two Texas detention facilities.  Those cases spread to 57 detention facilities in 19 states. Kim said the danger of large scale transmission is exacerbated by the frequent movement of detainees among different facilities, and by guards who go in and out of the detention centers every day. “The vulnerable people held in those facilities will get sick, some of them will die. And not only that, but the staff who work there will also contract these infections, go home to their families and their communities,” he said. 

At the Mesa Verde Detention facility near Bakersfield, California, a group of inmates gathered in front of a web camera to send out a plea for help.  “I wanted to bring it out to the public and let them see what's really happening. The truth - what's happening behind the walls,” said Charles Joseph, one of the detainees.  He said he and the other men in the video risked retaliation by making the video.  “We could have our tablet taken away,” he said, “so we can’t video chat with our families.”

A still frame from a video made by Joseph Charles and detainees from Dorm C at the Mesa Verde Detention facility near Bakersfield.

Standing before a group of detainees, Joseph read from a letter he and the others wrote and signed.  “We are fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, and even grandfathers to American Citizens.  We don’t need to be in custody fighting to return to our families...this is not necessary.”

He described how 100 men share five bars of soap, sleep in double bunks that are two to three feet apart, and how cleaning and sanitizing supplies are scarce.  “The staff are coming in and out with no masks, no gloves, total disregard,” said Joseph. “This pandemic requires social distancing, and that is impossible in this environment. This will turn our detention into a death sentence,” he said, signing off  as “the detainees from Mesa Verde Dorm C.” 

Among the complaints from detainees at Mesa Verde Detention Center - the close proximity of bunks. (KGET-TV Bakersfield)

As Charles Joseph stepped aside from the tablet camera, the detainees filed past the camera, some waving and some putting their hands together in prayer gestures.   Joseph then compiled a list of 40 men in his dorm with conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19, including himself. Joseph suffers from asthma.  

“It's not about if it gets here, it's about when it gets here,” said Pablo, a detainee who reached out to NBC Bay Area by phone from a California immigrant detention facility. We changed his name to protect his identity. “I’m worried about my life, he said. “I mean I can't even sleep at night.” Pablo’s attorney, Alameda County Public Defender Raha Jorjani, said her client had served time for his criminal convictions, adding that Pablo has now spent three years waiting in immigration detention waiting for resolution of his case.  

A spokesperson from ICE told NBC Bay Area that the agency has, in response to the COVID-19 crisis,  reduced arrests across the country.  The following chart shows arrests statistics are down sharply in Northern California in the first four months of 2020.  National ICE arrests are down 71% in that same time period.  The agency said it is following U.S. law, and its mission, to keep the most violent criminals off the street. 

“There's no reason to be imprisoning someone in immigration detention...especially right now,” said Christina Fialho, founder of Freedom for Immigrants.  She believes the solution to the crisis is to end detention for immigrants, who are being held on civil, not criminal matters - and who pose very little flight risk.  “Many of these individuals are also folks who have lived here in the United States for decades, who have children, have spouses in the United States,” she said, adding “they want to be released back to their family here in the United States.”

The ACLU and a coalition of attorneys filed a class action lawsuit against ICE demanding release of vulnerable detainees...including Charles Joseph.

Before he was detained by ICE, Joseph served 12 years in prison for holding up a convenience store and stealing $200.  He was released from prison in May of 2019. 

“I was so excited - like after 12 years, I was like, okay, freedom, you know, finally!” he said.  “I'm ready!”

But as he walked toward the prison exit, he was re-arrested and detained by agents working for ICE.  As a Fijian immigrant, Joseph is a permanent resident with a green card, not a U.S. citizen.  Because of the crime he committed when he was 21 years old, he can be detained, pending deportation.  He had been in detention at Mesa Verde for one year when the COVID pandemic began.

Jospeh’s lawyer, Francisco Ugarte, and a team of attorneys from the ACLU filed a lawsuit demanding that ICE release Joseph and other vulnerable detainees.  Citing Joseph’s asthma, a federal judge ordered his release last month. 

A guard approached Joseph at Mesa Verde.  “He was like, hey, how fast can you pack?”  Joseph had been on a four day hunger strike, protesting the conditions at the facility.  “I thought it was a dream,” he said. “I thought I was hallucinating.” 

On April 17, Joseph returned to his wife and two daughters in South Sacramento. Wearing an ankle monitor, confined to his apartment and the adjacent parking lot, Joseph has a big fight ahead to stay in U.S.  To apply for citizenship, he’ll need a pardon from Governor Newsom.   

If he can sort out his immigration troubles, he wants to teach.  “I will definitely do music,” he said, and teach my little ones music and art.”  

Just before being released from detention, Charles Joseph created an art piece which he named, "Divine Liberation." (Charles Joseph, March 2020)

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