Detainees in US immigration jails living in fear as coronavirus spreads

Alexandra Villarreal in New York and Oliver Laughland in New Orleans
Photograph: Gregory Bull/AP

Detainees at immigration detention centers across the American south have alleged heavy-handed crackdowns amid increasing panic and protest over the coronavirus pandemic, according to advocates and recordings of detainees obtained by the Guardian.

A number of detainees have expressed concern they are not being properly cared for in packed detention centers. Former senior immigration officials and attorneys have called for the release of nonviolent detainees. Judges in New Jersey, New York and California have ordered the release of small numbers, based on health concerns.

“People are terrified for their lives and think that they’re going to die there,” said Phoebe Lytle, a law student volunteer who has spoken with detainees at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) facilities in Louisiana. “I don’t think anyone is saying it in a light or flippant way.”

Jaclyn Cole, an outreach paralegal at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), said she was called on Tuesday by a Cuban asylum seeker who said officers dressed in riot gear were shooting rubber bullets and using chemical agents on detainees after a dispute with guards.

During the five-minute call to Pine Prairie Ice processing center, Cole said she heard between 10 and 15 shots.

Ice spokesperson Bryan D Cox did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He has previously denied that the privately operated facility possesses rubber bullets, after detainees have reported their use. Cox did confirm to Mother Jones that seven people at Pine Prairie were pepper-sprayed on Tuesday.

Elsewhere in Louisiana, guards at the LaSalle Ice center allegedly sprayed a man with what he called “toxic gas” on Monday after two other detainees cautioned detainees to forgo meals because food could carry Covid-19. The man was hospitalized, said Verónica Fernández, a project coordinator with the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative.

Cox did not respond to a request for comment on that incident. He did confirm a separate use of force at LaSalle on Wednesday to Buzzfeed News.

Since Covid-19 started spreading through the US, health and immigration experts have expressed concern that Ice is unequipped to deal with the crisis. The US runs the largest immigration detention system in the world and there is a well-documented record of infections ballooning into outbreaks in such facilities. Now, coronavirus has infected some of the agency’s employees and detainees, which experts said was inevitable.

Two detainees in New Jersey Ice facilities and five employees at four facilities in Texas, Colorado and New Jersey have confirmed coronavirus cases, according to Ice. No cases have been publicly announced in southern states.

The Trump administration has massively expanded the use of immigration detention facilities, with hardline policies that have driven the detention population to record highs. States in the deep south have opened more new facilities than anywhere else.

Advocates say immigrants held in Louisiana suspect Covid-19 has reached their facilities as the state becomes a major virus hotspot. At Ice’s South Louisiana center, a woman alleged she saw officers in hazmat suits feeding someone through a slot in a door, Cole said. At LaSalle, Fernández said, a dorm has reportedly been quarantined, and detainees believe two people have the disease.

“They’re not giving people what they need to protect themselves, and that is social distancing,” said Fernández. “That’s not something people can do in detention.”

Ice has said detainees’ “health, welfare and safety … is one of the agency’s highest priorities”.

“Since the onset of reports of Covid-19, Ice epidemiologists have been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to Ice Health Service Corps (IHSC) staff for the screening and management of potential exposure among detainees,” according to the agency’s website.

Some detainees believe they will not receive fair treatment in government care. In a recorded call from Richwood correctional center in Louisiana, released by the Southeast Immigrant Rights Network and the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and shared with the Guardian, one detainee said: “They’re not going to take a facemask from anyone, from any American, to put it on an immigrant. This means we are going to die.”

Advocates say anyone in detention is likely to have a compromised immune system, but some also have pre-existing conditions. Lytle said she spoke to a 61-year-old asthmatic at Jackson Parish correctional center, another facility used by Ice in Louisiana, whom she said was “very, very worried” and called to tell her people in his dorm were refusing meals.

A woman named Denisse, whose husband is at Stewart detention center in Georgia, feared what might happen as new detainees arrived and guards came and went.

“It’s just spreading rapidly, you know?” Denisse said. “And his immune system is already weak.”

Her husband has a pre-existing condition that has become worse since he arrived at the facility in September, she said, adding that he recently underwent a procedure and uses a catheter. She shook with relief when she learned he would be released on Monday. The reason for his release was unclear.

Hilda Jorge Perez, whose husband is at Richwood, said he had heart problems and high blood pressure. She worried that if he got infected, she would not be able to see him.

Perez’s husband was among at least 60 people who staged a hunger strike earlier this week. The protesters were forced to end the strike after officials told them they would be put in Ice’s version of solitary confinement and have phone and television privileges removed, Perez said.

Detainees at Stewart planned a similar strike. They demanded they either be released or deported instead of waiting to be infected, according to recordings of calls provided by a North Carolina advocacy group.

“We’re not going to eat until Ice comes here and gives us answers, and gives us a solution,” one man said.

A spokesperson for Ice accused advocates of circulating rumors about a hunger strike at Stewart, which she said never happened.