Update June 4, 2020: COVID-19 cases among detainees at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos continue to rise. On Wednesday, ICE updated its published numbers indicating that a fourth detainee inside the facility had tested positive.
ICE is no longer providing the names and nationality of detainees as the numbers coming from the agency’s operations division in an attempt to keep up with a fluctuating number of cases and statuses of those infected (isolate, active, recovered).
At PIDC, the number has steadily risen since last week. ICE referred questions regarding a population of detainees allegedly under quarantine at the facility to its published COVID-19 guidance, which explains how detainees who have come into contact with suspected or confirmed cases are isolated.
The agency did not address the specific number of detainees quarantined inside the facility. Valley-based advocates in touch with detainees have reported various estimates given by detainees allegedly quarantined inside dormitories. The latest, at 216 individuals, came on Wednesday.
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U.S. Immigration and Customs enforcement (ICE) is refusing to release a diabetic asylum seeker who has been detained inside the Port Isabel Detention Center for a year and a half.
Advocates previously kept Steven, a pastor from Uganda, anonymous out of fear of retaliation against him. Ongoing habeas proceedings seek his release from immigration detention due to his worsening health and a high risk of developing serious illness if he were to contract COVID-19.
In a press release sent on Wednesday, Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley detailed the man’s story. “Steven suffered severe repression in his homeland, including torture and the amputation of two of his fingers. His asylum case is now on appeal. Ugandan officials, assuming that he had been returned, have attacked and brutalized his friends and supporters back home. Although he has never committed a crime, and lawfully presented himself at the U.S Port of Entry, he has been detained for a year and a half at the Port Isabel Detention Center,” the coalition wrote.
Steven’s attorneys say the lack of support he’s been given by ICE has compounded the severity of his health crisis. In the past, Steven controlled his diabetes through medication, diet, and exercise. He has been denied the ability to do so while in detention. “Once detained, he was denied a proper diabetic diet, his blood sugars were only checked every three months, and his medications were altered. His diabetes is now at dangerous levels, he is going blind from untreated cataracts, and he often develops boils throughout his body, including his private parts,” wrote the Tias.
According to Steven’s lawsuit, he was placed in removal proceedings after a positive finding in his credible fear interview by an asylum officer. He was later denied parole. His asylum case is pending, with a petition for review in process at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and motions to stay his removal pending with both the Fifth Circuit and the Board of Immigration Appeals. U.S. District Judge Rolando Olvera, Jr. signed an order on May 26 denying Steven’s motion for a temporary restraining order, writing, “Preventing removable aliens from absconding and ensuring that they appear for their removal is a legitimate government objective.”
On Monday, Olvera issued another order denying a motion to reconsider filed by Steven’s attorney Cathy Potter. She confirmed that Olvera denied the latest motion without providing reasons for the denial, which was based on “evidence” submitted by the government for which the original denial of the temporary restraining order was made. “Respondents have twice cursorily denied [Steven’s] request for release to the care of a responsible sponsor on an Order of Supervision or with a bond, either with or without electronic monitoring,” Potter wrote in the original petition. She said on Wednesday, “He’s obviously a vulnerable person. I said they could release him in alternative forms — with an ankle monitor, or check-ins.”
“In his denial, the reasoning was that these documents said he was a flight risk because he jumped bail and he was a fraud and had misrepresented his passport to leave,” she said.
The grounds on which the judge denied Steven’s motion stemmed from a section in his document submission from the original asylum case. The government filed the documents under seal, which Potter couldn’t access in their entirety until three days later. They had been taken from the record on appeal from the Fifth Circuit. “I got the record and we found out where they got the documents from,” Potter said. “[ICE] had pulled out two pages that basically accused him of being committed for fraud — which he was — and having given his passport to the court in Uganda.”
The document submitted by the government’s attorney accused Steven of jumping bail three times and using false representation to obtain a passport to leave Uganda, his attorney said. The problem was, ICE’s attorney only submitted two pages of a 14-page report Potter says detailed correspondence between Uganda’s passport control and immigration authorities and the Department of State. “The court document was from the magistrate’s court and it was signed, but there was no name typed underneath. You didn’t know who it was and you couldn’t check if it was a real person. I went through the other 12 pages and there was correspondence between the agencies. Apparently, they filed this with Interpol or something and asked the Department of State to go after him and seize it,” she said.
Potter filed a motion to reconsider in which she explained to the court she had just obtained the documents and that the information the government submitted was fundamentally incorrect. Olvera denied the motion without any reason given. Potter emphasized, “I went through the other 12 pages and summarized what each one said and included them in the actual package. I submitted the motion thinking we probably had a chance, then two days later it came back and it was just dismissed, denied.”
The remaining 12 pages should have clarified the matter for officials tasked with determining whether Steven was eligible for discretionary release. “The magistrate judge who did the case indicated that the court did not have [Steven’s] passport, that he had been acquitted of all three charges, and that an earlier charge had been settled. It was signed. Underneath, the name of the magistrate judge was typed. I checked; the person actually is a magistrate judge in Uganda. Passport control wrote back and described the passports they’d issued to him. One was lost, it had been replaced, and there were no misrepresentations involved and the passport itself was totally valid,” she said. “In other words, these other 12 papers basically verified that this was a poison pen letter. None of it was true. But, the government didn’t submit those pages. They submitted the ones that say he was a fraud and a flight risk and that he was jumping bail all the time.”
Communication from detainees inside PIDC in Los Fresnos, Texas, where ICE has reported three active COVID-19 cases, suggest the facility has at least three pods inside its dormitories under quarantine for having come into contact with a suspected or confirmed case. Estimates from detainees inside the facility vary; they don’t leave their crowded dormitories except for a recreation hour, according to advocates. The latest estimate of 216 quarantined detainees came after another detainee reported an alleged 130 detainees quarantined at PIDC two days prior. Two Cuban detainees at the facility initiated a hunger strike on Monday in protest of conditions. At least one of those men, Yoirlan Tome Rojas, was still on strike as of Tuesday afternoon.
According to ICE’s published COVID-19 guidance, the agency released over 900 individuals after evaluating their immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk, and national security concerns. The agency claims its detained population has steadily dropped by more than 7,000 individuals since March 1 as a result of a decrease in book-ins. The reported drop in detainees likely stems in part from the Trump administration’s decision to “immediately” expel anyone caught crossing into the United States without documents, a policy announced by Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf under the March 20 CDC order that shut down nonessential travel along the entire U.S./Mexico border.
Though ICE claims to be implementing its own guidance, Valley-based attorneys have reported that is not the case inside PIDC. “I’ve been submitting things, just to warn the court — this is what the detainees say, this is what the last attorney over there said, this is what my assistant observed. Nobody is wearing PPE. And of course, now they have COVID inside the facility,” said the attorney.
Steven recently informed advocates that one of the officers had been going in and out of the dormitory without a mask. He alleged that the officer later tested positive for COVID-19. Potter and others are uncertain who that employee might be. ICE does not publicly list positive cases among its contracted workers. The agency confirmed its first positive case among detainees on May 14, though news broke over a month earlier that a contract employee with Chenega Facilities Management who worked at PIDC tested positive and had last worked at the facility on March 30.
The pastor’s life is at risk if he comes into contact with the virus. Other detainees have. According to Potter, some of the detainees said they had a pod mate who they later learned tested positive. Steven’s circumstances may require that he speak out, but those familiar with experiences in ICE detention know that protesting can be dangerous. As Steven’s attorney put it, “Who they release is totally arbitrary and I’m sorry, but there’s retaliation involved, too — because we have filed lawsuits,” Potter said.
Steven’s finger-prick testing device was taken from him when he was processed into PIDC, according to his lawsuit. He is under 40 and has already gone blind in one eye as a result of his worsening diabetes. An appointment with an eye specialist resulted in a recommendation for surgery to remove the cataract caused by his uncontrolled diabetes, which was postponed until the lifting of a ban on elective surgeries imposed due to COVID-19, his attorney wrote in the habeas petition. Officials have allegedly denied him a suitable diet for a diabetic, and the physician treating Steven inside PIDC noted the metformin he was prescribed as of April 5 is “an insufficient single medication in his case if, while taking it correctly, his blood glucose is over 500.”
The same doctor specified that as a result of this inadequate care, Steven’s risks “over time are very high for diabetic retinopathy (development of vision problems), diabetic neuropathy (loss of nerve function and feeling in his feet and hands), and diabetic nephropathy (kidney failure leading to dialysis).” According to Potter, Steven suffers from numbness and tingling in his extremities and manifests boils all over his body, “lesions often caused by infection with MSRA (methicillin resistant Staph Aureus) which spreads rapidly in prison or detention settings.”
Steven allegedly has not been directly treated by the doctor overseeing his case. “She’s never seen him. She may have been at the clinic when he visited, but she has never examined him. He doesn’t know who she is,” his attorney said.
Information provided by officials does not appear to be completely transparent. The Tias’ statement described various reports coming from both detainees and attorneys who have been inside the facility since it was closed to visitors as a precautionary measure. Those include that beds are close together, making social distancing impossible; that staff moves and out of the dormitories without masks, and that the agency does not supply detainees with enough soap for handwashing. Allegations raised in Steven’s lawsuit claimed detainees are not provided adequate hand soap and that guards and other personnel have access to masks and gloves, but most do not wear them. A box of masks put in one of the dormitories (each housing approximately 70 inmates) was quickly depleted and had not been replaced at the time the petition was filed. Inmates are provided with three small packets of shampoo a day and only those with funds can purchase other products, according to the document.
In the petition, advocates alleged that four open toilet bowls in each dormitory can’t be cleaned during the day because staff provides supplies only in the mornings and evenings. “Reports are that [Port Isabel Service Processing Center] employees going in and out of the different dormitories rarely wear masks and gloves. New intakes are processed into PISPC regularly and given the critical shortage of tests, it is highly unlikely that they are tested for COVID-19 before integration into the general population,” the complaint stated.
“This creates an unacceptable risk for detainees, particularly those most vulnerable to the virus. It also creates a risk for communities in the Rio Grande Valley, given that employees at PISPC come to work from the community, and return into the community after their shifts, thus acting as vehicles for the transfer of the virus between community and detention facility on a daily basis.”
Attorneys for Steven are considering seeking review of the temporary restraining order’s denial at the Fifth Circuit. Potter will consider asking the court for an injunction.