ICE Confirms Second COVID-19 Case Inside Port Isabel Detention Center

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confirmed a second positive COVID-19 case inside the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas on Wednesday evening. The news came following information from advocates in touch with detainees inside the facility that a man had tested positive before ICE allegedly removed him to a medical facility on Tuesday.

ICE did not confirm the case on its website until 5 p.m Wednesday. The agency said in response to a press inquiry sent earlier in the day that it updates the number of confirmed cases reported to the public on a daily basis but declined to address rumors of a second positive case inside PIDC. On Thursday morning, ICE confirmed the detainee was a 19-year-old from Haiti. The agency declined to provide details on the detainee’s condition. As of May 23, ICE’s total detained population was 25,911, the result of court-ordered judicial releases and discretionary releases made by ICE to reduce all facility populations to 70 percent or less beginning in March, according to the agency’s website.

The reduction in the number of ICE book-ins is likely a direct result of the March 20 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order allowing the administration to immediately return those who enter the country to without documents to Canada or Mexico in a process called rapid expulsion. Where returns to Mexico or Canada are not possible, the individuals are returned to their country of origin, according to CBP. U.S. Border Patrol enforcement statistics showed the agency apprehended a total of 15,862 individuals without documents along the southwest border last month. 14,416 of those were Title 42 expulsions in which Border Patrol and CBP’s Office of Field Operations expelled migrants to the country of last transit or home country “in the interest of public health” under the CDC order.

Advocates have tracked these expulsion flights, potentially carrying infected migrants back to Colombia, Jamaica, and Haiti, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, and other countries in Latin America. Notably, the administration has ceased processing new asylum claims at U.S. ports of entry. The return of asylum seekers to a country where they face a likelihood of persecution or torture based on race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group or political opinion is known as “refoulement” under the United Nations Convention Against Torture and is prohibited under both U.S. and international law.

An advocate who has been making welfare visits to PIDC for over a year is in touch with over 30 detainees who write daily through a messaging service monitored by ICE. Messages detainees sent in mid-May in both English and Spanish indicated a growing awareness among the housed population that the virus was spreading inside the facility. The agency confirmed its first positive case among detainees on May 14, though news broke on April 9 that a contract employee with Chenega Facilities Management who worked at PIDC tested positive and had last worked at the facility on March 30. ICE does not list publicly the cases confirmed among the agency’s contracted detention facility staff.

Information provided to detainees about the virus and the agency’s response appears to be minimal and messages sent to from inside PIDC reflect that uncertainty. One detainee wrote in a message to an advocate on May 14, “I don’t have any knowledge currently of anyone infected with covid-19 here at PIDC. however they continue to bring in new people till now and that does not rule out that there is none infected only that I have not heard of any as per now…”

On May 18, detainees said they were aware of and concerned about cases. One detainee wrote, “I have been reliably informed by people in here that we have a confirmed case of covid-19…please get me out of here, I am so worried and disturbed.”

Another sent, “Tengo corte de fianza ya que la solicite por los motivo de que en el centro de detención hay presunción de corona virus desde hace algunas semanas y ya hay confirmación de dos casos. me entere por las noticias en la TV” (The detainee requested a bail hearing due to the spread of the virus and confirmation of two cases, which he learned about on the news).  A third detainee wrote he had obtained a letter of support (presumably for sponsorship and release on parole) and was working with an attorney to deposit bail. In his message, the detainee stated there were already confirmed infections inside the facility. 

A letter sent by a detainee to the advocate in April alleged that detainees were “being lied to about the situation at PIDC. A maintenance worker was diagnosed with the virus and he is recovering. Plus we have some individuals who are on quarantine for the virus.”

The detainee’s letter fell by the wayside as volunteers worked to respond to a variety of needs and concerns over the unfolding of the pandemic inside the detention facility. The detainee wrote, “A week or so ago a plane of people that were deported from PIDC to Guatemala had 75 percent of the people on the flight positive for the virus,” likely referencing what detainees heard on the news. “As of Monday the 28th of April 2020 there are three units under quarantine for Covid-19.”

A copy of a letter sent by a detainee inside the Port Isabel Detention Center in April.

In the letter, the detainee referenced a case filed on March 22 in the Southern District of Texas in which a fellow detainee was denied humanitarian parole despite being at high risk of serious illness if he were to contract the virus. That case involved a sixty-nine year old Mexican man with serious underlying medical conditions. According to an order signed by U.S. District Judge Rolando Olvera, Jr. on March 27, S.M. presented himself at a port of entry in early December of last year and sought asylum after a family member allegedly levied false criminal charges against him, accusing him of sexually assaulting one of his granddaughters. He was transferred to ICE custody after an asylum officer issued him a negative finding of credible fear. A judge later overruled that finding, but ICE repeatedly denied S.M. bond based on an outstanding arrest warrant in Mexico, according to the document.

The order referenced claims made in S.M.’s original petition, including that he had been held in the infirmary due to his failing health since his arrival at PIDC, that ICE employees were “not even attempting to enforce ‘social distancing’ or the universal use of masks and gloves”, and that PIDC was allowing “the sick and those who are not sick” to handle and take toiletries from the same box. Officials allegedly denied S.M.’s request for wipes to disinfect a phone used by other detainees or his eating area; and facility employees not uniformly using N95 face masks.”

“[S.M.]’s counsel also affies that PIDC does not check employees’ temperatures when they enter the facility. [S.M.] alleges that these inadequacies place his life in ‘grave danger’,” Olvera wrote.

S.M.’s attorney Lisa Brodyaga confirmed in an email that ICE never released her client. “But, it was too dangerous for him to stay in detention, due to COVID-19,” she wrote. “What we did was withdraw his application for admission. He was returned to Mexico.”

ICE’s published COVID-19 guidance states that in addition to soap for the shower and hand soap, ICE provides alcohol-based sanitizer “in visitor entrances, exits, waiting areas and to staff and detainees in the secure setting whenever possible.” The agency also provides soap and paper towels in the bathrooms and work areas within detention facilities. A local organizer regularly in contact with detainees inside PIDC said she recently heard that those in immigration detention must still pay for sanitizer. “I do think they’re provided small amounts of soap for personal use, but it’s a small amount and it’s not sanitizer. Sanitizers you have to buy through the commissary,” she said.

Asked whether locally-based immigration advocates were still getting reports from detainees and attorneys regarding guards not using masks inside the facility, as well as detainees being denied proper personal protective equipment, she said the information from inside varies. “I think it depends on the dorm. If a particular dorm is under quarantine, those folks will get masks. But up until this first confirmed case a few weeks ago, we only got reports of masks inside the quarantined dorms, not the others. Now, it does sound like everyone has masks.” The organizer added, “Just yesterday I was asking someone if the guards use their masks, because early on, the guards were inconsistent. According to this one person, they do have masks.”

Detainees who meet the CDC criteria for epidemiologic risk of exposure to COVID-19 are identified by ICE and housed separately from the general population, according to the agency. The ICE Health Screening Corps (IHSC) is tasked with isolating and monitoring detainees with fever or respiratory symptoms for a period of 14 days. “ERO [Enforcement and Removal Operations] has also encouraged facilities to isolate new admissions into the detention network for 14 days before placing them into general population,” ICE wrote.

Those detainees at risk of contracting the illness are housed separately from the general population, while detainees with symptoms are housed in “a single medical housing room” or in a “medical airborne infection isolation room” designed to contain illness. “ICE transports individuals with moderate to severe symptoms, or those who require higher levels of care or monitoring, to appropriate hospitals with expertise in high-risk care,” guidance stated.

Messages sent to an advocate on May 26, one day prior to ICE’s confirmation of the second case inside PIDC, suggested that staff transported the infected detainee to a hospital. The detainee’s claim has not been confirmed by ICE and the advocate noted it was unclear whether the detainee who sent the message meant the facility’s infirmary or a civilian hospital. Detainees said in separate messages to at least two advocates that dormitory pod ‘B-4’ had 20 detainees quarantined inside.

One organizer referenced a message in which the detainee she communicated with indicated there were “dorms” in quarantine versus a single dorm. A detainee told another advocate that a group of 16 had been quarantined by staff in a pod in the “D” dormitory. Staff allegedly removed one detainee after learning he had been in contact with the detainee the agency confirmed positive on Wednesday. ICE has not confirmed that any detainees at PIDC are under quarantine and the advocate specified that it’s still unclear whether there is a single quarantine or multiple. One of the detainees who reported the quarantine allegedly has a severely compromised immune system and is worried about his safety. “The detainee is basically panicking right now because he knows that he was in contact with the other guy,” said the advocate. “He’s really, really concerned.”

The messaging system used by advocates, attorneys, family, and friends is monitored by ICE, so detainees have to be careful what they share and how. According to one of the organizers, some of the individuals who participated in a hunger strike in late March (which ICE said did not take place) were put in disciplinary segregation — solitary confinement. “ICE both neglects the people in their custody and also retaliates against them,” said the organizer. “I haven’t heard of anyone being placed in solitary for speaking up or protesting since then. And they do use it punitively.”

In a message sent on May 26, a detainee wrote, “I think we have more cases of the infection of COVID-19 coz the tension is too much and quarantine. They added more people in my dorm making it even much more risky and very impossible for social distancing. We are now congested amidst all the tensions of the virus. Its really a challenge and I don’t know what to even do anymore as we live in limited supply of soap, masks, and almost no gloves. its terrible and we need your prayers.”

Another wrote, “entramos en cuarentena” (we are in quarantine).