ICE Confirms Third Positive COVID-19 Case Inside Port Isabel Detention Center

Update June 2, 2020: Valley-based human rights organizers are reporting that two men from Cuba detained at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos initiated a hunger strike on Monday. The men, Julio Cutino Sanchez and Yoirlan Tome Rojas (who asked organizers to share his name after learning they initially kept his identity private), are under orders of removal and have been waiting for months to be returned to Cuba, according to the press release circulated by RGV Equal Voice Network (EVN) on Tuesday regarding the strike.

“They fear contracting COVID-19 in detention, and their demand is to be released in the United States or returned to Cuba. ICE has retaliated against them for exerting their First Amendment right to free speech by placing them in solitary confinement,” organizers wrote.

On Tuesday, Rojas’ wife informed an organizer that Sanchez had allegedly discontinued his hunger strike, though the organizer had not yet been able to confirm that with Sanchez directly. In solitary confinement, detainees don’t have access to tablets normally available in dormitories and rely on guards to access the phone, according to the men who initiated the hunger strike.

Detainees in touch with Valley-based advocates are now reporting that staff has quarantined an estimated 216 people for having come in contact with a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19. The latest estimate from a detainee is up almost 100 from the 130 quarantined individuals reported over the weekend. Those 130 detainees allegedly under quarantine also represented a significant jump from the week before, when detainees in communication with Valley-based advocates reported that a total of 36 people in two separate dormitories may have been under quarantine beginning May 26.

“It’s hard for the folks in each dorm to know because they can only speak for sure about their own dorm, so they’re estimating what they’re seeing across the other ones,” said an advocate in touch with detainees inside PIDC. As far as the advocate was aware, the only reason detainees leave each dormitory is for allotted recreational time. “They’ll see signs posted in the doors of the other dorms warning that the room is under quarantine,” explained the advocate.

The estimate of 130 detainees under quarantine came via a detainee inside the facility on Sunday. On Monday, another detainee reached out to the advocate estimating there were 216 individuals isolated for having come into contact with a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case. ICE has repeatedly declined to confirm whether any detainees inside the facility are under quarantine, referring inquiries to general information published under the agency’s COVID-19 guidance. On Tuesday, ICE updated its publicly available guidance specifying the number of confirmed cases alongside how many of those cases are currently under observation. At PIDC, there were two listed cases under observation and three cases total. ICE made no mention of the alleged mass quarantine.

According to the agency, “‘Currently under isolation or monitoring’ includes detainees who tested positive for COVID-19 and are currently in ICE custody under isolation or monitoring. This number excludes detainees who previously tested positive for COVID-19 and were either returned to the general population after a discontinuation of medical monitoring/isolation or are no longer in ICE custody.”

ICE’s “Total confirmed COVID-19 cases’ is the cumulative total of detainees who have tested positive for COVID-19 while in ICE custody since testing began in February 2020. Some detainees may no longer be in ICE custody or may have since tested negative for the virus,” the agency wrote.

ICE’s total detained population as of May 23 was 25, 911, a nearly 50 percent reduction from the roughly 50,165 detainees the agency stated it cared for on a daily basis in fiscal year 2019. This was the result of both court-ordered judicial releases and discretionary releases of at-risk detainees beginning in March, though various ongoing federal cases in the Southern District of Texas indicate there are still detainees inside the facility at high risk of serious illness if they contract the virus.

Inside PIDC, detainees share phones, tablets, and recreation equipment with hundreds of other people detained, many of whom are under quarantine, according to EVN. “People detained eat, sleep, and use the bathroom within feet of each other in crowded dormitories where it is impossible to maintain physical distance. Guards come in and out of their dormitories without masks,” wrote EVN.

That both detainees chose to go public with their full names and country of origin is notable, as immigration advocates have long emphasized that undocumented immigrants in ICE detention are retaliated against for organizing themselves. Sanchez told organizers, “I have had an order of protection since February. ICE doesn’t return me to my country and doesn’t release me here. If there is no one outside to help us, we are going to die here on hunger strike.”

Rojas added, “We would rather die of hunger than of the coronavirus here inside without any kind of attention,” said the anonymous detainee. “We decided to go on a hunger strike because there are many cases of the coronavirus here that people outside do not know about. If they are not going to send us back to our country, they should release us.”

A protest organized by EVN, Angry Tias of the Rio Grande Valley, and Detention Watch Network is scheduled for Saturday. Information is available on EVN’s Facebook page.

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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Monday confirmed that a third detainee inside the Port Isabel Detention Center (PIDC) in Los Fresnos has tested positive for COVID-19. The detainee is a 27-year-old from Guatemala. The agency declined to provide any further information on the person’s condition.

On May 27, ICE confirmed that a 19-year-old detainee from Haiti had tested positive, the second detainee to contract the virus since May 14, when the agency said a 20-year-old male from Mexico tested positive. Local organizers in touch with detainees began receiving messages on May 26 indicating that at least two dormitories were under quarantine inside the facility. ICE declined to confirm whether those dormitories were under quarantine, responding with generalized information available on the agency’s website under it’s published COVID-19 guidance. Those organizers are reporting at least two detainees inside the facility have initiated a hunger strike.

A protest is set to take place on Saturday, organized by Detention Watch Network, Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley, and RGV Equal Voice Network. “Public health experts predict that once there are 5 or more cases in a facility, between 72 percent and 100 percent of people detained there could contract COVID-19 within 90 days, potentially overwhelming hospitals in the area,” organizers wrote.

“Reports from inside indicate at last 130 people are under quarantine at the Port Isabel Detention Center. In other words, a COVID-19 outbreak is not a matter of if, but when. The time to release people detained in the Rio Grande Valley is NOW.”

According to the event’s description, there are two men detained locally currently on hunger strike. In retaliation, ICE has thrown them in solitary confinement,” organizers wrote, confirming that hunger strikes reported since January have either continued or have been re-organized. Federal court records have documented at least three individuals detained inside the Port Isabel Detention Center who launched hunger strikes inside the facility between August and December of last year, requiring ICE to petition a federal judge for a temporary restraining order to forcibly feed or hydrate the respective detainees.

Activists with Witness at the Border have been tracking those flights since the beginning of January in an attempt to shed light on how the agency is placing undocumented immigrants in harm’s way through deportations to countries in Latin America currently facing the brunt of the pandemic. Immigration officials continue to allow the transport of undocumented individuals between detention centers across the country, potentially facilitating the spread of COVID-19. The agency does not test the asymptomatic detainees it is deporting on contracted ICE Air flights, according to a report published by the Miami Herald on Friday detailing an interaction between a U.S. Department of Justice attorney and a federal judge during a court hearing on May 27.

ICE said in a statement to the paper that “Additionally, in an effort to avoid removing aliens with active COVID-19 cases, on April 26, 2020, ICE began testing some aliens in custody and prior to removal,” the agency said in a statement. “Where DHS/ICE deems detainee testing is warranted/appropriate by specific bilateral agreement, ICE coordinates with foreign governments to prioritize testing of detainees per evolving operational considerations.”

Witness identified 1,677 ICE Air flights of of interest between January and April. Of those flights, 1,043 were domestic flights and 634 were deportations and returns. Of the 1,677 ICE Air flights, 848 (51%) were deportation related (deportation, deportation returns, direct deportation connections) and 829 (49%) were “shuffle” flights between domestic ICE detention locations, the tracking team wrote in its report.

Photo Credit: Denise Cathey for The Brownsville Herald