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COVID-19 Outbreaks Arising in Detention Centers

Posted by Matthew Green | Jun 07, 2020 | 0 Comments

Detention Centers are far from immune to the coronavirus pandemic.  The La Palma Correctional Facility here in Arizona faces a growing outbreak of COVID-19.  On Tuesday, May 12, the Arizona Republic reported that “the number of detainees at [this] Immigration and Customs Enforcement Eloy facility who have tested positive for COVID-19 has risen to 56.” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had first reported infection among detainees on the first of April.  On May 31, another headline followed: “COVID-19 outbreak at ICE detention center in Eloy ballooned into one of the largest in the nation.”  In the span of two weeks, the number of positive cases at the 3,060-bed detention center rose by twenty to a total of 76 infections.  This means that, according to the data most recently released by ICE, the outbreak at La Palma is the sixth largest in the nation.  

Beyond Arizona Detention Centers

The infiltration of the coronavirus pandemic into detention centers is on a much larger, national scale.  As of May 30, ICE data reveals that a total of 2,781 detainees had been tested for the coronavirus and 1,406—just over fifty percent—were found to be positive.  This shows no improvement in infection rate, considering the fact that data from the previous week show the same percentage of positive cases: as of May 22, ICE had tested 2,394 detainees nationwide and had 1,201 confirmed cases.  Of course, detainees are not the only ones who are being infected; 44 ICE employees working at these detention centers have also tested positive to the disease, as is confirmed by ICE.  According to the Arizona Republic, the detention centers with the highest infection rates of COVID-19 include:

  • Otay Mesa Detention Center (San Diego, California), 158
  • Bluebonnet Detention Facility (Anson, Texas), 132
  • Winn Correctional Center (Winnfield, Louisiana), 116
  • Otero County Processing Center (Chaparral, New Mexico), 92
  • Houston Contract Detention Facility (Houston, Texas), 78
  • La Palma Correctional Facility (Eloy, Arizona), 76

In Texas, the El Paso Times has reported on the Bluebonnet Detention Facility outbreak, where more than one-quarter of the immigrants detained there have been infected by the coronavirus: “as of May 22, 111 detainees had tested positive for COVID-19. That is…the second-highest number of infections among the country's 49 immigration detention centers where detainees have tested positive for the virus.”

The cases in Arizona and Texas have become increasingly concerning when compared with the situation in San Diego.  As indicated above, the Otay Mesa Detention Center has the highest number of positive cases—158, over half as many as the cases at La Palma Correctional Facility—of all detention centers in the country.  These numbers are all put into a new perspective in light of the fact that two detainees have died due to complications related to COVID-19:  “On May 24, Santiago Baten-Oxla, a 34-year-old immigrant from Guatemala, died at a hospital in Columbus, Georgia, of complications related to COVID-19” and “On May 6,  Carlos Escobar-Mejia, a 57-year-old man from El Salvador, died of COVID-19 related complications at a hospital in National City, California.”  Both Baten-Oxla and Escobar-Mejia had been held in ICE custody, the former at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia and the latter at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego.

Response to the Outbreaks

The deaths of both detainees have intensified criticism against ICE and its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.  Despite implementation of guidelines posted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ICE has clearly failed to adequately prevent the spread of the disease within its detention centers.  Social distancing, for example, is not properly maintained within detention centers due to “space constraints.” Instead, ICE resorts to placing detainees in cohorts.  Additionally, advocates for the detainees, including the ACLU, cite claims that there is a lack of access to supplies as basic as soap and masks.  A petition filed by the Florence Project in April stated that “infectious disease specialists warn that no conditions of confinement in (prison) settings can adequately manage the serious risk of harm for medically vulnerable individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic.” This same petition explains exactly why prison settings are inherently contrary to the prevention of infection: “detainees live in dorms and sleep in bunk beds, sharing common spaces and medical facilities with hundreds of other detainees. They are forced to share necessities like showers, telephones, toilets, and sinks with dozens of others. They are in the constant presence of officers and staff who continually rotate in and out of the facility, each time risking transmission of the virus to those inside and outside the detention center.”  All of these factors do not subscribe to CDC recommendations.

Furthermore, the outbreaks within detention centers highlight underlying issues with private prison companies.  La Palma Correction Center and Bluebonnet Detention Facility, for instance, are both run by for-profit contractors which are often criticized for “cutting corners to maximize profits.”  According to Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU's National Prison Project, they are also examples of “how the Trump administration has opened detention centers in rural areas around the country to detain more undocumented immigrants.”

Given the threat of the virus within detention centers, it is not surprising that more than fifty lawsuits have been filed by the ACLU and partner organizations on behalf of detainees who are particularly vulnerable.  Detainees with high-risk conditions—asthma, diabetes, cancer, hypertension—at La Palma Correctional Center signed a letter on May 7, saying they “feared for their lives due to the outbreak.” ICE officials have said that the agency has released “more than 900 detainees after evaluating medical issues, and other factors after conducting reviews of 34,000 cases of detainees who fell within CDC guidelines for higher risk of severe illness as a result of COVID-19.”

On May 19, U.S. Democratic Senator Tom Udall announced that the Department of Homeland Security has launched an investigation into ICE's response to the coronavirus pandemic inside immigration detention facilities.  Along with 25 other Democratic senators, Udall had “[raised] concerns about reports that immigration detention centers weren't making adequate efforts to prevent and reduce the spread of COVID-19, including not providing adequate soap and hygiene products to detainees; not providing protective gear to staff and detainees, and the inability of detainees to practice social distancing.” 

As this investigation is underway, advocates of detainees continue to fight for the safety and health of all immigrants held within ICE custody.  Green Evans-Schroeder is no exception.  We are committed to advocating for the release of our detained clients who are at high risk of COVID-19 infection.   

About the Author

Matthew Green

Managing Attorney. Green | Evans-Schroeder (formerly Law Offices of Matthew H. Green) focuses on the aggressive defense of immigrants. A native of Arizona, Mr. Green understands the difficulties that immigrants and families of immigrants face when a loved one is charged with a crime. He knows how frightening it can be for some...

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