Sixth ICE detainee tests positive for COVID-19 as hunger strikes begin

The latest case of coronavirus came from a detention center in Eloy, Ariz.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle sits in the Rio Grande Valley sector of the border in Texas in 2019. A sixth person in immigration detention has tested positive for COVID-19.  (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call file photo)
U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle sits in the Rio Grande Valley sector of the border in Texas in 2019. A sixth person in immigration detention has tested positive for COVID-19. (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 2, 2020 at 11:42am

A sixth person held in immigration detention has tested positive for COVID-19, while immigration advocates say other detainees held in federal care have taken to hunger strikes to protest conditions and demand parole amid the health crisis.

The latest case of coronavirus came from a detention center in Eloy, Ariz., and involved a 45-year-old Guatemalan national, CQ Roll Call learned Wednesday night.

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It's the first confirmed case outside of New Jersey, where five people at three separate facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, per Immigration and Customs Enforcement's public tally of cases.

“Consistent with CDC guidelines, those who have come in contact with the individual have been cohorted and are being monitored for symptoms,” Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, an ICE spokeswoman, said via email, referring to a practice where detainees are kept isolated in their enclosures.

Five members of ICE’s detention facility staff and 44 other employees also have tested positive within the past several weeks.

Monika Sud-Devaraj, an immigration attorney who represents clients at the Arizona facility, learned about the COVID-19 case after a client called to tell her he was in lockdown. She said a local ICE contact informed her that the affected detainee had recently transferred into the facility and was taken to a hospital for a seemingly unrelated reason. He was tested for COVID-19 while at the medical facility. ICE did not confirm whether this is the same case or a different one.

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Sud-Devaraj said attorneys are still allowed visitation at Eloy's La Palma Correctional Center, as long as they wear personal protective gear. But she said ICE has failed to otherwise provide clear safety guidance across the board and has been reluctant to suspend enforcement operations or release detainees at risk because of pre-existing health conditions.

“This isn’t chicken pox, where if someone gets it it won’t be the end of the world,” she said. “This is a pandemic . . . people will die.”

‘No control’

The worsening health crisis has earned the ire of many House and Senate Democrats and elicited multiple lawsuits, including a couple that have resulted in the release of some at-risk detainees.

The latest confirmed case of COVID-19 also has deepened anxiety in ICE facilities across the country, with many detainees electing to go on hunger strikes to demand parole.

Immigration advocates announced Thursday that at least 100 detainees have taken up a hunger strike at ICA-Farmville, a detention center in Virginia run by private contractor Immigration Centers of America. It's the latest after similar strikes have been reported recently in at least eight other ICE facilities — three in New Jersey, and one each in Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Washington state.

ICE denied reports of current hunger strikes at all but one facility. An agency spokesperson said via email that several detainees in custody in York, Penn., recently refused meals "but still have access to food via the commissary.” 

The spokesperson said that a “person would still be considered to be on hunger strike if they have missed nine consecutive meals — even if they are still consuming food from the commissary,” suggesting ICE has a different definition of what constitutes a hunger strike than advocacy groups.

The agency “closely monitors the food and water intake of those detainees identified as being on a hunger strike,” the spokesperson added.

Local organizers with advocacy groups Sanctuary DMV and La ColectiVA said they have received calls from ICA-Farmville detainees and their relatives expressing acute fear about the way the pandemic has been handled by facility operators.

Detainees said at least six people have been placed in isolation, and that they have seen officers "selectively" wear protective gear as they enter and leave one of the dorms that appears to be quarantined, according to Madhvi Venkatraman, one of Sanctuary DMV's core organizers. The detainees fear that these detention officers may be carrying health risks as they go in and out of the facility.

“These people have no control over how to protect themselves,” Venkatraman told CQ Roll Call.

Like many other ICE facilities, ICA-Farmville saw a mumps outbreak in 2019. Its operators were criticized for dragging their feet in providing vaccines. Detainees also took up a “meal strike” at that time to oppose the handling of the mumps outbreak. Local media reports recounted how the center's administrators subsequently used pepper spray on the strikers in retaliation.

CQ Roll Call reported last fall that ICA makes $120 per day for each person held at Farmville, and an additional $28 per person when the total number of detainees exceeds 500. The facility has 700 beds in total.

In February, Jesse Franzblau, a senior policy analyst at National Immigration Justice Center, testified before a Maryland state panel that ICA got its Farmville facility off the ground in 2011 with the help of then-Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, an immigration hardliner who is currently serving as the acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security.

In a statement, ICA said “everyone at the facility is working incredibly hard to keep everyone healthy and safe” and referred other questions to ICE.

In September 2019, a spokesperson told CQ Roll Call that the company "committed to providing the most protective, quality care alternative to housing individuals detained for civil immigration violations in jails."

“This is evidenced by our track record. We have received 100 percent compliance on our past six audits," the spokesperson said.

Calls to release detainees

As of March 28, ICE held 35,671 people in custody. Of these, 5,991 had already cleared the first steps of the asylum application process and were found likely to face persecution if they returned to their home countries.

In recent weeks, Democrats in Congress have called for the release of ICE detainees — starting with the most vulnerable. Many have stressed that ICE detention is civil, meant to hold people until they can attend their court hearings, and not for punitive purposes.

"Ideally, we would like to get everyone out of those closed spaces, where they're sitting ducks," Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said in a press call Tuesday.

Numerous lawsuits have been filed to force the release of at-risk detainees at immigration detention facilities — seven by the American Civil Liberties Union alone. Many advocates believe the current number of confirmed cases may be an undercount.

Last week, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ordered the release of 11 detainees in one such case, writing that the facility in question was "plainly not equipped to protect Petitioners from a potentially fatal exposure to COVID-19."

"While this deficiency is neither intentional nor malicious, should we fail to afford relief to Petitioners we will be a party to an unconscionable and possibly barbaric result," the judge wrote.