Detained Immigrants Warn Of A Lack Of COVID-19 Protections Inside The Port Isabel Detention Center

An asylum seeker who has been detained in Los Fresnos, Texas for over two years is fighting for his release amid concerns raised by attorneys, advocates, and healthcare professionals nationwide that Coronavirus will spread rapidly in immigration detention facilities across the Valley.

M.B.D, an asylum seeker from Guinea, fled his home in October 2015 after he was imprisoned and tortured for participating in a peaceful demonstration on behalf of a political candidate in Conkary, Guinea, according to court records filed last year.

The man initially fled to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he remained for two months until his passport was stolen. He arrived at the the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge in August 2017, where he requested asylum with a separate I.D. card, according to the lawsuit.

Documents filed by attorney Peter McGraw in an attempt to get his client released argued that M.B.D. “has never received an individualized hearing before a neutral arbiter on behalf of to determine whether his detention was even necessary.”

ICE has been the subject of nationwide calls to release immigrants being held in the agency’s custody while the country responds to the outbreak. The Texas Tribune reported on March 25 that roughly 60 immigrants held in the South Texas Processing Center in Pearsall, operated by GEO Group, were pepper sprayed this week while staging a protest over concerns including a lack disinfectant and other precautionary measures.

In the Rio Grande Valley, local volunteers who have made welfare visits with detained asylum seekers in the Port Isabel Detention Center for over a year have spoken with multiple detainees who have allegedly coordinated a hunger strike with an estimated 70 to 90 participants in protest of a lack of precautionary measures taken against COVID-19.

Visitors are currently barred from entering the facility. One detainee allegedly organizing the strike told volunteers in a phone call that inmates living in the crowded dormitories have not been provided with cleaning supplies, masks, or gloves. ICE said no detainees had threatened to hunger strike.

A coalition of local human rights organizations including Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley, Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, La Unión Del Pueblo Entero, and National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice addressed a letter to ICE’s San Antonio field office last week demanding the release of detainees at Port Isabel and the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville.

Tías Jennifer Harbury and Madeleine Sandefur are sponsoring a moveon.org petition demanding the release of the detainees at Port Isabel. In the document, they allege detainees brought concerns to the facility’s staff before initiating a hunger strike on March 30. “We understand that there is a grave risk of retaliation and intimidation should it continue,” they wrote.

The petition explained that asylum seekers detained in the facility must purchase soap from the commissary “if they can” and that many detained in the facility have serious health concerns, exacerbating the risk of infection. Facility staff are allegedly not wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). “The guards, arriving from their homes, walk in and out of the dormitories without gloves or masks and go from one dorm to the other in this manner throughout the day. There are 70 men to a dormitory so social distancing is impossible,” the Tías wrote.

“The men also eat in their dorms, with food workers bringing in the food trays, with gloved hands but no masks. There are four toilet bowls in each dorm, standing out in the open without any screens. These are cleaned in the morning and evening, but no cleaning materials are available in between.”

An open letter penned to ICE Acting Director Matthew T. Albence last month by over 3,000 U.S. medical professionals called for the preventative measures to combat the spread of the virus, including the release of non-violent offenders who cannot properly practice social distancing while incarcerated. 

The doctors cited “crowded and unsanitary conditions, poor ventilation, lack of adequate access to hygienic materials such as soap and water or hand sanitizers, poor nutrition, and failure to adhere to recognized standards for prevention, screening, and containment.”

“The frequent transfer of individuals from one detention facility to another, and intake of newly detained individuals from the community further complicates the prevention and detection of infectious disease outbreaks,” the letter stated.

On Sunday afternoon, the agency’s website showed 20 confirmed COVID-19 cases involving detainees or detention center employees, but reports have indicated that the agency has been monitoring more potential cases.

ICE guidance published on how the agency is addressing the spread of COVID-19 in its detention centers states that the agency’s Health Service Corps “isolates detainees with fever and/or respiratory symptoms” and observes the detainees for a specified period of time.

“IHSC staff consult with the local health department, as appropriate, to assess the need for testing. Detainees without fever or respiratory symptoms who meet epidemiologic risk criteria are monitored for 14 days,” the agency states on its website.

“I haven’t heard any discussion from the government about releasing him. They’ve filed things in court recently suggesting they intend to keep him detained,” said McGraw of his client. 

“We raised the issue of the outbreak of the Coronavirus and the government said they wanted some time to address that. And there’s nothing to suggest that [M.B.D.] has any history of violence or that he’s any risk of danger to the community if he’s released.”

The attorney felt the situation is urgent and was looking into options including making a request for the court to make an emergency order for temporary release pending a full decision on M.B.D.’s habeas application.

McGraw said he visited his client at the Port Isabel Detention Center in late March and that guards did not appear to be wearing masks or gloves. “I visited [M.B.D] on Sunday. None of the guards were wearing masks, none of the guards were wearing gloves. ICE, on their website, says that if attorneys are going to visit, they need to bring masks and eyewear and latex gloves,” he said.

ICE stated on its website that “Comprehensive protocols are in place for the protection of staff and patients, including the appropriate use of PPE, in accordance with CDC guidance.” Asked for comment, the agency referred all questions pertaining to the use of PPE to ICE’s published COVID-19 guidance.

The attorney explained that he called ICE to ask whether they were going to require him to wear a mask, as masks are sold out all over town and he could not find one in Brownsville. “They said no. They didn’t interfere with my ability to communicate with my client,” he said.

McGraw said it could become a problem, however, for attorneys visiting their clients as the number of cases identified continues to increase. “If they’re requiring that for attorneys, it should be something that’s actually available to attorneys who want to communicate with their clients, especially at a time like this,” he said.

The attorney was concerned about access to soap in the facility after speaking with his client. “You can purchase soap at the commissary for $2.15 per bar of soap,” he said, noting that many asylum seekers don’t have the kind of money to be making purchases for necessary items.

“I don’t know if DHS has made any changes to that, if they’re making soap or hand sanitizer freely available. But, that seems like among the most basic things you could do to stop an outbreak in a congregant setting right now,” he said.

Update, April 6, 2020: A local volunteer reported that the hunger strike may no longer be taking place, as one of the leaders was placed in isolation. The detainee allegedly had a bond hearing last week before officers placed him in a new dorm, away from fellow organizers. An immigration judge granted the man bond, according to the volunteer.

A version of this article was published on April 2, 2020 in The Brownsville Herald.