Detainees Speak Out From Inside the Port Isabel Detention Center

Update June 8, 2020: ICE’s website on Monday indicated eight detainees at PIDC had tested positive for COVID-19. Seven of those detainees were under medical isolation or monitoring. The agency also confirmed that two detainees at PIDC initiated a hunger strike on June 3.

One of those detainees is Yoirlan Tome Rojas, from Cuba, who on Monday entered his second week without food. Organizers in touch with detainees speculated the confirmation did not include the mass hunger strike that reportedly started on the evening of Friday, June 5, or the one that began on Sunday morning involving an estimated 120 detainees, “presumably because those haven’t hit the 9th consecutive missed meal (or 72 hours) when ICE officially recognizes a hunger striker,” said RGV Equal Voice Network’s Norma Herrera.

Organizers on Monday were still trying to identify the second detainee formally on hunger strike. One of the detainees who spoke to Herrera and reporters on Saturday called the next day to report that 41 detainees inside dormitory A-4 began their hunger strike on Sunday morning. He told Herrera that “20 ICE officers stormed Alpha 4 and threatened to throw them all in solitary” at around 10:00 p.m. on Saturday night.

On Monday afternoon, detainees told Herrera that at around 10 a.m., “Someone was taken out of dorm Alpha 1 and taken to the hospital.”

“Alpha 1 was under quarantine but this person had not been isolated or tested for COVID prior to this,” the organizer said.

. . .

Demonstrators braved searing afternoon heat at the entrance to the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas on Saturday, demanding the release of detainees vulnerable to COVID-19. They called on Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be transparent about the number of detainees inside the facility who have tested positive and how many are under quarantine, asking ICE to take the pandemic and the health and safety of those in their custody seriously in light of growing concern among detainees who say the agency is lying about what’s happening inside.

Advocates in touch with detainees at the facility, many of whom are asylum seekers and have never committed a crime, began reporting wholly inadequate protections against COVID-19 at PIDC in March. ICE has since reported a total of four positive cases inside the facility. Three of those cases listed on ICE’s website are currently under isolation or monitoring. The ongoing transfer of detainees between detention centers, the admittance of new detainees into the facility, and a lack of testing available to potential asymptomatic carriers means that more likely than not, there is already an outbreak happening inside the facility. In combination with reports of guards not wearing personal protective gear and inadequate cleaning supplies available to detainees, organizers worry that if ICE doesn’t act, lives will be lost.

Norma Herrera, Rapid Response Community Organizer with Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network (EVN), held her phone up to reporters as she spoke with two groups of detainees inside the facility over the ICE-monitored phone system. The estimates detainees gave the crowd regarding the number of confirmed COVID cases at PIDC varied, but two clear counts — 27 and 5 confirmed cases, 5 employee cases, 240 detainees quarantined, and 120 detainees preparing to hunger strike — indicated the number of cases is rising steadily and is already higher than what ICE has reported publicly. Asked to confirm whether any detainees at PIDC or at the El Valle Detention Center in Raymondville, Texas were on hunger strike, ICE indicated Monday there were no detainees on hunger strike at El Valle. At PIDC, the agency confirmed there were two detainees on hunger strike as of June 3.

ICE wrote of its hunger strike policy, “Due to privacy rules, we are prohibited from discussing individuals engaged in a hunger strike by name or specifics of their case absent the detainee’s consent. ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference. ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers. ICE explains the negative health effects of not eating to our detainees, and they are under close medical observation by ICE or contract medical providers. For their health and safety, ICE carefully monitors the food and water intake of those detainees identified as being on a hunger strike. As the policy makes clear, a person in ICE custody is deemed to be in hunger strike status after they refuse nine consecutive facility-provided meals (72 hours). This protocol applies even if a person continues to consume food purchased via the commissary during that period of time. However, upon missing that ninth meal it triggers formal hunger strike protocol, which is detailed in the hyperlink above. As the document makes clear, once a person is receiving hunger strike treatment only a physician may terminate. ICE’s detention standards concerning hunger strikes may be reviewed here: http://www.ice.gov/doclib/detention-standards/2011/hunger_strikes.pdf“.

EVN, Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley, and the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas walked in a group to the facility’s entrance on the outskirts of Los Fresnos. They held up signs demanding justice for passing cars to see. An advocate who makes welfare visits to the facility told demonstrators that the closed gate leading to a winding driveway is normally open to visitors. Not long after the protest began, two facility security guards drove up to the gate, parked their truck, and approached organizers. Both guards asked the crowd to step back onto public property — a patch of dirt that lines the highway — to avoid being hit by cars. They emphasized that most visitors were “attorneys and legal aid”.

“Some of us are attorneys and legal aid,” said Jennifer Harbury, human rights attorney and a founding member the Angry Tias. Harbury is one of a team of attorneys — including Lisa Brodyaga and Cathy Potter — currently representing Steven, a young pastor from Uganda with severe diabetes who is going blind due to inadequate treatment on the behalf of facility staff and physicians.

Harbury signed Steven’s sponsorship papers, she told the crowd, describing her client’s harrowing journey to the U.S./Mexico border and his rapidly deteriorating health. “He has never committed a crime. He founded a church at a very early age and started doing social support and social justice work. That was fine with the government when it was health education and welfare, because then they didn’t have to pay for it. His church was paying for it. But then, he started doing human rights work with prisoners and political dissidents, and that was not ok with the government,” she said. “During one of his earliest torture sessions, he had two fingers amputated. His shins still bear extreme and heavy scars from melting plastic bags that were dripped onto his skin and knives that slashed into his flesh.”

Steven has a strong asylum case on appeal at the Fifth Circuit. Advocates previously kept him anonymous of out fear of retaliation, which organizers and attorneys have warned for the years is commonplace and often goes undocumented in immigration detention centers across the country. Steven’s federal habeas petition is pending. On June 1, U.S District Judge Rolando Olvera, Jr. denied attorney Cathy Potter’s motion for a temporary restraining order seeking Steven’s release due to the presence of COVID inside the facility and his failing health. Notably, the denial was based a document ICE submitted to the court alleging Steven had used false information to obtain a passport to flee Uganda. The agency’s attorney filed only two pages of the 12-page document. According to Potter, the missing 12 pages contained correspondence between the Department of State, a magistrate judge in Uganda, and Uganda’s passport control and immigration authorities in which officials confirmed Steven had not broken the law.

Steven and his supporters fled Uganda in 2018. The pastor applied for asylum legally at a U.S. Port of Entry. He has been detained for over a year and a half. Harbury continued, “He went to the hielera first. It’s important to know that when he arrived, he was diabetic but not badly diabetic. He developed diabetes back in Uganda but had always been able to test every day, and with rigorous diet, exercise, and medication, he had it very controlled and very stable. He went into the hielera [“cooler” — commonly used to describe notoriously freezing Customs and Border Protection processing centers] and got half his dosage the first day. The next day, he got transferred to Port Isabel and the day of transfer he got half the dosage.”

Detainees at PIDC cannot maintain control over their diet, according Steven’s attorneys. Meals consist of foods like white bread baloney sandwiches, cookies, and chips. Facility staff never gave Steven his requested diabetic diet, or even an alternative kosher diet that would be more suitable for his condition. “They cut his meds in half after he saw a doctor and within a few days, he became very sick. He suffered a serious crisis. Then, they adjusted his meds back to where they needed to be. His food arrives on a different colored plate that says ‘special diet’ but it’s the same sandwiches with white bread and baloney that everyone else gets, nothing different,” said Harbury.

Medical staff checks Steven’s blood sugar once every three months, the attorney said. ICE took his finger prick device away upon his arrival at PIDC and won’t allow him to self-check, causing the pastor, who is under 40, to fall seriously ill. “He started developing boils on his face — big, deep cysts. Once, when I saw him, his cheekbone was so swollen that his eye was swollen shut. He lost a lot of weight. He felt sick on and off. By the end of last year going into January of this year, he began to go blind. He has cataracts. They are very aggressive cataracts caused by the diabetes. He went to see an eye doctor who recommended surgery. He hasn’t gotten it. One eye has no vision, the other eye has half the vision. The boils are also on his body and his private parts,” said Harbury. “The inadequate medication he was getting for his diet caused a complete breakdown and he ended up with blood sugar somewhere around coma level. And his GHB level was at 12. Seven means you’re diabetic. His life was in danger.”

Steven’s boils don’t respond to antibiotics the medical staff treats him with. Harbury specified she’d be “amazed if they’re being given in adequate doses,” though the pastor goes twice a day to the infirmary trying to get his medications switched around. He has never been able to get the combination right. “If coronavirus hits him, he’s dead. The boils are throughout his body because he is so immunodeficient and because of the terrible treatment and poor diet he has been getting for a year and a half,” she said.

ICE’s refusal to grant Steven discretionary humanitarian release — which would have bonded him out of detention, allowing him to see civilian doctors — puts him at extraordinary risk of contracting coronavirus. This, in combination with limited personal protective equipment allotted to detainees, inadequate rations of hand soap, and the inability to clean dormitories and pods during the day, means Steven’s life is in danger. According to Harbury, “The bunk beds are all so close you can reach up and touch them. No social distancing. They don’t get enough soap to be able to wash their hands very often. They get little packets of shampoo. The toilets stand out in the open. There’s no shield, so the bacteria goes all through the quarters all day long, including mealtime. They get washed in the morning and washed at night — nothing in-between — even though 70 people are using four to five toilet bowls.”

Detainees inside he facility can shower as they wish but only have access to laundry every few days. “When they first come in, they’re issued used uniforms and underwear, including stains,” added Harbury. “The guards, when I was here at the end of March — just as their first corona case was identified — were going in and out of all the dormitories, from one dorm to the other, including bringing food on trays. They wore no masks and only had gloves if it was food.”

The attorney said staffers inside PIDC don’t appear to be taking the pandemic seriously, commenting things like “I’m a staffer, I don’t have to wear a mask and gloves”, “I can if I want to but I’ve chosen not to have them because I think it’s silly”. Harbury described how ICE shut down an earlier hunger strike led by Cubans inside PIDC after staff threw the leaders into “administrative segregation” (more commonly referred to as solitary confinement) and threatened to do the same to others. According to ICE’s policy, the agency is required to initiate its hunger strike protocol after detainee hasn’t eaten for 72 hours. The process may involve medical isolation and monitoring if “medically advisable”, but segregation does not appear to be mandatory.

“Finally, when some of the detainees were issued some masks sporadically, the hunger strike died out,” Harbury said. “Now, there are many cases in there. They can’t socially distance. The guards are still going in and out. I believe Steven is probably already infected. I signed the sponsorship papers. Why can’t he come stay at my house and get adequate medical care, and maybe even survive? Or is that the whole point — that we want them dead? When that man, Chauvin, knelt on George Floyd’s neck — did he want him dead? Or, did he just not give a damn? I ask the same question here.”

Before the protest ended, Harbury received a message indicating Steven had the flu. Organizers were uncertain whether he had been tested for the flu or whether he was displaying flu-like symptoms.

Fellow Angry Tia Madeleine Sandefur, in touch with various asylum seekers inside the facility, read a statement from a detainee from Cameroon. She said of her friend, “Cameroon is caught up in a civil war which borders, in fact, on genocide. He was targeted by the government forces for taking part in a peaceful protest. He was incarcerated, he was tortured, threatened with death. Finally, with the help of a friend, he was able to flee the country, leaving behind his wife and his child of only a few weeks old. He, like Steven, came here legally — across the bridge.”

The anonymous detainee’s statement read, “We are refugees. We are not criminals. If criminals can be released from some jails in the U.S. because of the COVID-19 pandemic, what more of refugees, like me, who have been in an ICE cage — captivity and confinement — for about eight months now. ICE has systematically stripped us of our dignity, identity, individuality, and humanity by exposing us to the coronavirus.”

Norma Herrera, speaking with detainees over the phone, told reporters the conversations made her feel “desperate because I feel we all want everyone to be liberated here in the United States, but they are so desperate and they are asking to be deported. All they want is not to die”.

She addressed the crowd in English after completing two phone calls. Detainees’ voices were raspy and distant through the weak connection as they spoke to Norma and among each other. Every so often, the call would drop, forcing the detainees to call back. “The first folks who called indicated they believe there are 27 positive cases. First, they said 27, then they said 29. They know this because they saw there were 27 trays being prepared inside the kitchen to to take to the medical isolation units,” said Herrera.

Detainees live in one of four pods within each dormitory. They are able to accurately report what’s going on in their immediate vicinity, but estimates regarding the rest of the facility vary. Herrera explained, “The second group of folks who called said it was their understanding that there were five people who had contracted COVID-19 and that there were an additional 15 others under medical observation.”

One detainee told Herrera that three dormitories — A-3, A-4, and A-2 — were preparing to hunger strike on Sunday morning. He estimated there were 40 detainees in each dormitory and 120 individuals planning to participate in the hunger strike. Asked what ICE tells him when he communicates his concerns, answered, “That’s why we’re going on hunger strike — because ICE won’t show their face. We want to talk to them, we want to tell them that we’re afraid for our health, and they won’t show up. There’s no way to communicate with them.” Another detainee told Herrera that ICE says, “If you get sick, you get sick.”

“There are many people here who are sick. There are people in quarantine and about 30 sick people,” the detainee said. “We don’t have soap, we don’t have face covers, and guards don’t wear any either.”

Detainees inside PIDC speak with demonstrators and reporters.

The man who informed organizers of the hunger strike indicated that other pods in dormitory “A” are under isolation. According to Herrera, the detainees know this as ICE posts signs on the doors of dormitories under quarantine. The man also alleged that detention center staff is down to roughly 200 employees from the usual 500 because they don’t want to go to work. He added, “There are four pods with people and they have taken two people from each infected. The bathrooms don’t have soap to wash our hands. They let people out even though they are in quarantine.”

On Sunday morning, the man called Herrera back to inform her of an alleged five confirmed cases among facility staff. ICE does not report cases among its contract employees, who at PIDC are managed by Ahtna, Inc. and Chenega Facilities Management — both based in Alaska. Officials at both companies were contacted for confirmation. On Monday, Chenga’s General Manager Scott Wallace confirmed there were no additional cases among the company’s staff. Ahtna, Inc. did not respond to the inquiry and forwarded the email to ICE.

Last week, organizers reported that two men — Julio Cutino Sanchez and Yoirlan Tome Rojas were on hunger strike. Herrera confirmed that Sanchez had started eating again. As of Sunday, Rojas had been striking since May 29. Sanchez’s wife, Yadelsy Fonseca, wrote in a statement, “‘Freedom is the sure possession of those who have the courage to defend it.’ — Pericles.”

“That is why, in a peaceful way, I ask the corresponding authorities for the immediate release of those detainees who feel threatened by this terrible pandemic that carries the blame for those who may lose their lives. Freedom!!! Freedom!!! The abuse is horrible. The detainees are human beings, they have rights, and their families care about them.”

Sanchez wrote from detention, “They’re not sending us to Cuba or releasing us. I have a deportation order from from February 11th. They won’t send me to my country or release me here. They give no explanation of anything. No one comes to see us. No one tells us anything. Here, if there is no one outside to help us, we are going to die here in this hunger strike. We are already several Cubans and others who have joined the strike as well. They’re going to kill us.”

His fellow organizer, Rojas, wrote, “We prefer to starve to death than have the coronavirus in here without any kind of attention or anything. We decided to go on a hunger strike because there are many cases of coronavirus here that people outside don’t know about. All of the people are coughing here. The guards come and go without masks. The food is not brought from outside. We want them to send us to our country; they won’t send us to our country because some countries, like mine (Cuba) won’t accept us. If they are not going to send us to our country, let us be released and if not, they need to give us the necessary conditions to not die from the virus.”

Yoirlan’s wife, Yaelin, also addressed the public in a statement. “Good afternoon. I want to send this message on behalf of all the detainees. We want justice for everyone and to tell them that everyone who is in there is unjustly detained, that some have committed a crime or felony in the past, and justice made them pay once. It is unfair that they are condemned for life,” she wrote.

Herrera read a final statement from a detainee who wished to remain anonymous. The detainee wrote, “Here, the situation is very, very, terrible, indeed. The only thing people are asking for is freedom or to return the people being deported to their countries. There are people who have been waiting for two to three months for their deportation, like in my case. I’ve been fighting for four months now. I’m asking for my health, for the health of everyone, and for the health of the people who are here. We do not want to die here and we do not want to catch the virus. We are not even asking to be here in the United States — only that they give us one more chance at life. First, that they give us security that we are not going to be infected. There are many infected people and they are hiding that. I used to go out to work and I was aware of all that. We are looking for a solution for our health, not for more. I want to get out of here healthy. I have children, I have a family. There are staff here who call and do not want to come to work. They say there are two infected people, but there are more. There is no disinfectant to clean. There is no social distancing — we are living together, 60 people in a bedroom. We all use the same sink, phones, and tablets. There is no protection.”

The demonstration finished with a collective breath in honor of those struggling for their survival. Anayanse Garza, a member of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, grew up in a colonia down the road from PIDC and with her sister, her family, and youth from the community organized to support hunger strikers inside the facility 10 years ago. As she spoke, two security guards parked their truck next to the demonstrators. A woman climbed out, indicated she was taking photographs, and began to record demonstrators. ACLU legal observers followed her with cameras. The woman finished and drove back up the facility’s driveway.

A PIDC security guard records demonstrators.

Garza said of her work, “It was the same thing that people are talking about right now. Back then, it was swine flu. At that point, we had a representative in each pod. That’s how huge the hunger strike was. At one point, they would end up force-feeding a Haitian man and trying to do that to a few others by inserting a tube through their nose, feeding liquid into their bodies, against their will. We tried to denounce this as torture because under international standards, it is considered torture to force feed. The case went to court with a judge here in Brownsville and she signed off on all the paperwork.”

Garza described interacting with detainees and supporting them through the struggle, eventually drawing the attention of Human Rights Watch, Detention Watch Network, and Amnesty International — though Garza noted the latter became involved only after months of organizing, educating, and spreading information. She said, “There was a Haitian man who was on hunger strike for 30 days. 30 days without food. They obligated him by inserting that tube. The detainees would tell us, ‘We’re not eating, but you all — you are the food. You are the food to our spirit and that spirit of feeding is what allows us to go without food, to be able to fight for our rights.’ They were fighting for human rights and they were fighting for due process. They were being held indefinitely without knowing whether they were going to go home, if they were going to be released, or if they would end up dying.”

The organizer thanked the crowd for their presence and urged each demonstrator to continue taking action. Being close to support networks means a greater likelihood of accessing legal aid. Though migrating has been criminalized, it is not a crime, she said. Garza pointed across the road. “Right over there we used to set up tents and we spent the night. There was a young man from El Salvador who was sexually abused here and who was also on hunger strike. His mom came and we set up there. She went on hunger strike for three days.”

Eventually, the man was transferred back to Florida where his family was located. He was released. Change of venue were extremely rare, Garza explained. “They wanted to keep people isolated where they knew they didn’t have any support. That can mean all the difference in these cases.”

The idea that because PIDC is a federal facility, the agency is doing things the “right” way, is not the case, added Garza. She and other advocates are well aware of the use of retaliation against detainees who challenge the agency. Garza recalled an incident in which detainee Rama Carty was falsely accused of assaulting an officer the day before Amnesty International arrived to tour the facility. “They accused him of having a razor. He was shaving because they told him he had two or three hours to get ready to leave. They took him that very night and they flew him to Louisiana. When the officer came to get him, he turned around and he had the razor in his hand. It was on video and they ended up erasing and tampering with the evidence, which was presented at trial. Because we had done so much education in the community, the jury saw through these strange circumstances being presented to them. He was released,” Garza said.

“We need to change the way the system works. There are many problems with the fact that these detention centers are built on our ancestral lands, all the harm they’re doing to migrant people. We know that a lot of the people coming from further South are original people from their own lands and that they’re not being recognized as original people. They’re being called ‘immigrants’ or ‘migrants’.”

Journalist Elsa Cavazos provided translations for this article.