Fighting To Save Lives, Attorneys File Complaint Against ICE and the Port Isabel Detention Center With DHS Office of Inspector General

Update June 12, 2020: ICE on Friday reported 34 positive detainee cases inside PIDC. Of those cases, 31 detainees were under isolation or monitoring. At El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville, the agency reported no further cases.

Update June 11, 2020: On Thursday, ICE reported a total of 26 confirmed COVID-19 cases inside PIDC. 23 of those cases were under isolation or monitoring. At the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville, Texas, ICE confirmed that one detainee had tested positive and was under isolation.

Update June 10, 2020: ICE on Wednesday reported a total of 22 confirmed COVID-19 cases inside the Port Isabel Detention Center. The agency listed 19 of those cases as being under isolation or monitoring. “That really proves what folks inside have been saying. ICE is not testing people or reporting cases until it’s too late and the virus is now spreading rapidly,” said Norma Herrera of RGV Equal Voice Network.

A detainee inside inside PIDC’s dorm C-3 told advocates on Tuesday night that eight out of the facility’s 16 dormitories were under quarantine. Those dormitories reportedly under quarantine included “Charle 3 (58 people inside); Charlie 4 (40 people inside), Alpha 1, 2, and 4; Bravo 2, 3, and 4”. Advocates explained that pods Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta each have four dorms inside, totaling 16. “He says there’s an average of 35 people per quarantined dorm, so that’s an estimated 280 under quarantine,” wrote Herrera.

The detainee estimated there are 550 to 560 people detained at PIDC in total, a number he was able to come up with because he knows the person who works in “proceso” — the facility’s booking area “[He] says they have a blackboard where they update the total number detained,” continued Herrera.

The man’s communications suggested ICE is retaliating when detainees refuse to be transferred between dormitories. At PIDC, detainees allege they’re not being tested until they display serious symptoms. “If they show milder symptoms like coughing, they remain in the quarantined dorms with others, potentially infecting others if they are indeed positive. The shuffling of people across dorms is haphazard. This man and 37 other people in dorm Charlie 3 refused to be moved to another dorm yesterday and last night ICE responded by moving 20 people into their dormitory instead,” wrote Herrera.

“Later [on Tuesday], one out of those 20 reported a fever and was taken out of the dorm. Another was vomiting and was taken out of the dorm,” wrote Herrera. “He shared with me in a message later in the day that one of those people has now tested positive.”

ICE announced the agency had begun making voluntary testing available to all detainees at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, Washington and the Aurora Contract Detention Facility in Aurora, Colorado in a press release on Wednesday. Both facilities have reported positive cases, with the ACLU leading a lawsuit on behalf of around a dozen detainees in Tacoma seeking their immediate release. In Aurora, ICE reported 12 positive cases and nine detainees under isolation or monitoring as of June 9.

At PIDC, several deportations to Guatemala and Ecuador appeared to have been halted. “On Sunday, ICE attempted to deport 20 people to Ecuador and Guatemala, but five were returned. He thinks this is because they were positive, but it may be because Guatemala appears to not be accepting people deported right now,” Herrera wrote.

The detainee told Herrera there are rumors ICE is already pursuing a court order to force feed detainee Yoirlan Tome Rojas, a Cuban man who on Monday entered his second week on hunger strike. She said of the rumor, “I’m not sure how quickly ICE moves to do this. Folks detained may think that because ICE has been threatening to force feed him since the first day of his strike.”

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, Jr. sent a letter to ICE Acting Director Matthew T. Albence on Monday regarding Yoirlan Tome Rojas and Julio Cutino Sanchez, detainees from Cuba who initiated a hunger strike on May 29. Sanchez discontinued his hunger strike last week. “The high number of individuals quarantined, along with previously reported conditions of overcrowding in the facility is a testament to ICE’s failure to adequately follow CDC guidelines and recommendations to fight the spread of COVID-19. The close quarters and lack of sanitation measures are a danger not only to Mr. Cutino and Mr. Yoirlan, but to all detainees and employees. Thus, I urge ICE to immediately release Mr. Cutino and Mr. Yoirlan, and other nonviolent detainees, to help curb the spread of this deadly virus,” Vela wrote.

. . .

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases inside the Port Isabel Detention Center has been steadily rising every few days, sending local immigration attorneys and advocates into a frenzy as they fight for the release of clients at high risk of serious illness or death if they become infected.

On Monday, the agency reported there were eight cases total inside the facility. Seven of those detainees were listed as being under medical isolation or monitoring. Communications from people detained inside the facility have for weeks suggested that ICE isn’t being entirely transparent about what’s happening inside, and it appears that an outbreak is already well underway.

In a press release published on Tuesday, attorneys for a severely diabetic asylum seeker who could die if he contracts the virus announced they had filed a complaint against PIDC and ICE with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) urging the man’s release. “Since April 2020, detainees and activists alike have decried the lack of adequate medical protections at the Port Isabel Detention Center. The bunk beds are close together, no adequate supplies of soap are provided, and even as of May 31, 2020 staffers were entering the dormitories and bringing food without wearing masks. Eight corona virus cases have been confirmed at the facility during the last several days, and many others are either are being tested or symptomatic. Three dormitories, including Steven’s, are now quarantined. Steven, if he falls ill with the virus in his fragile health, is at risk of severe illness or death,” the Tias wrote.

“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 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. Steven has suffered from diabetes for years, but was able to control it well through medication, diet, and exercise. 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.”

Two groups of detainees told RGV Equal Voice Network organizer Norma Herrera in a phone call on Saturday that there an alleged 27 to 29 cases, which the detainees counted after seeing 27 trays in the facility’s kitchen set aside to take to PIDC’s medical isolation unit. A second group of detainees reported five confirmed cases and 15 under medical isolation or monitoring, as well as five employees allegedly infected. Chenega Facilities Management and Ahtna, Inc — two private companies who manage some contracted workers at PIDC — were contacted for confirmation, as ICE does not list any employee cases at the facility and does not list cases among its contracted detention center staff. Chenega’s General Manager Scott Wallace confirmed no employees were infected. A press contact for Ahtna, Inc. appeared to have forwarded the inquiry directly to ICE, which responded to the inquiry on background but did not confirm any employee cases.

Detainees on Saturday told Herrera and reporters that roughly 120 detainees in three separate pods within dormitory “A” were initiating a hunger strike on Sunday morning. This came after two Cuban detainees started their own strikes. One, Yoirlan Tome Rojas, entered his second week without food on Monday. ICE on Monday confirmed that two detainees at PIDC initiated a hunger strike on June 3. Organizers were still trying to determine who the second hunger striker was. Hererra speculated the confirmation did not include the mass hunger strike reportedly started on the evening of Friday, June 5, or the one that began on Sunday morning, “presumably because those haven’t hit the 9th consecutive missed meal (or 72 hours) when ICE officially recognizes a hunger striker.”

Detainees told Herrera over the weekend 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 the organizer that at around 10:00 a.m. that morning, a detainee had been taken to the hospital. Immigration attorney Cathy Potter confirmed on Monday she also heard that a seriously ill detainee was taken to the hospital.

Potter, Jennifer Harbury and Lisa Brodyaga are fighting to get Steven, who is going blind due to a lack of treatment, released before he becomes infected. Harbury told a crowd of demonstrators on Saturday she believes Steven is already infected.

ICE recently denied Steven discretionary humanitarian release based on two pages of a 14-page document which claimed he fled Uganda using false information to obtain a passport. An investigation by Ugandan authorities and the Department of State resulted in officials finding that Steven did not commit a crime. ICE still denied his release. On Tuesday, Potter said Steven contacted an advocate the night before to ask if she had “ever heard of losing your sense of taste and smell?”

The attorney also heard from a detainee about the man transported to the hospital. “The detainee said they took him out like he was almost dying,” she said. “According to Steven, everybody’s coughing. He has been coughing, but they call it the flu. I’ve had other clients reporting the same — they call it the flu, they take people out, they put them in isolation, they bring them back. It’s outrageous. There are a lot more than eight cases over there. To my knowledge, they haven’t tested Steven yet.”

Steven informed the attorneys on Saturday that he had “the flu”. Organizers were unsure whether he had actually been tested for the flu or whether he was displaying flu-like symptoms. Harbury said on Tuesday, “People with symptoms are not being tested”.

Attorneys who visit the facility have for months warned of guards not wearing personal protective equipment, an inability for detainees in crowded dorms to socially distance, and inadequate soap and cleaning supplies afforded to detainees, among other concerns. In response to ICE’s inaction, Harbury filed a formal complaint with OIG on Tuesday morning regarding the failure to implement basic precautions against the spread of COVID-19 at the facility. 

“Willfully detaining Steven at PIDC during the COVID-19 outbreak is arbitrary, irrational and capricious. When combined with the refusal to comply with CDC requirements, the situation shocks the conscience,” she wrote in the complaint. 

“[Steven] is diabetic, and he has been subjected to egregiously inadequate care and treatment at the facility. This has left him near blind, with highly unstable blood sugar levels, and with frequent boils throughout his body. He is acutely vulnerable to COVID-19. At the Port Isabel facility, no reasonable measures were taken to protect the detainees from the virus, and this has resulted in an outbreak of the disease during the last week. [Steven] has been repeatedly denied release to a fully eligible local sponsor, who could provide the CDC-required protective conditions and help to arrange for adequate medial care. He has never committed a crime, and we note that attorney and human rights supporters have long observed clear discrimination against Africans at the facility in all release matters. [Steven] is now at very serious risk of permanent and devastating damage to his health, or death.”

Harbury asked that “[Steven] be released forthwith to his local sponsor”, that OIG “investigate and remedy the knowing and intentional failure by PIDC to comply with CDC requirements for the use of masks, social distancing, hand washing, and other precautions” and that the office “investigate and remedy the racial bias against African asylum seekers in PIDC regarding release practices”.

Harbury and other advocates in touch with detainees have noted that asylum seekers from African countries who seek asylum legally (by presenting at a port of entry and walking across the bridge versus swimming the river) are detained for years at a time without bond hearings. Steven has been detained for a year and a half.

Another attorney, Brownsville-based Cesar de Leon, said he’s been getting disturbing reports from his client, who was transferred to PIDC by the Cameron County Sheriff’s Office on an immigration detainer despite the fact he was placed in a state-level pre-trial diversion program for a DWI charge, meaning he has no record. The man has lived in the United States since 1998, runs a construction company, and has three U.S. citizen children. He also cares for a step child who’s a DACA recipient. “Basically the judge said even though your client doesn’t have any convictions, he’s a danger to society. This guy has no criminal history,” said De Leon.

“I think ICE detainers are unconstitutional. Right now, if you go into Carrizales (Cameron County Detention Center) and you’re undocumented, they will call Border Patrol on you. Border Patrol shows up twice a day. They arrest undocumented aliens for failure to ID because they won’t have a valid drivers’ license in Texas, then they transfer them to Carrizales or any local police station and put them in the system under the Secure Communities Act. From there, ICE knows they’re here undocumented — even if you can dismiss the charges, even if there’s no probable cause to arrest your client,” he explained.

The attorney raised safety concerns to the immigration judge responsible for determining the man’s eligibility for bond when the pandemic began. The judge allegedly told him, “I’m not even going to consider that,” and denied De Leon’s client bond, citing two unrelated cases as precedent involving illegal re-entry and an instance in which a man was convicted of multiple DWIs. Both are irrelevant to his client’s current circumstances. De Leon will file a habeas petition in federal court seeking his client’s immediate release.

The attorney inadvertently confirmed that dormitories inside the facility, including one in which his client is housed, are under quarantine. ICE has declined to provide specific numbers regarding many detainees are under quarantine, though detainees told reporters on Saturday they estimated 240 across various dorms. De Leon recently tried to visit his client at PIDC. He said, “I showed up and they basically told me that my client was under quarantine, so if I wanted to see him, they would have to put on a suit and take us to a special room. If my client is technically sick, I would also get sick. They ask if you’ve been in any place where you could have had contact with someone who is sick — I told them, ‘Yeah, I came last week and you guys had cases already and you didn’t let the attorneys know.’ It was my client who let me know.”

“My client is freaking out. He calls me and it’s scary. The Cameron County Sheriff’s Department, the Raymondville Detention Center — everybody is really trying to work with the attorneys and they’re monitoring their inmates. But, PIDC doesn’t care,” said De Leon.

Advocates are still getting daily messages from detainees regarding the outbreak and ongoing quarantine. Those involved are working to identify every quarantined dormitory and are beginning to suspect that facility staff is running out of space in the infirmary, where the ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) was treating and testing isolated detainees. One detainee from Cuba wrote on Tuesday, in Spanish, “Good afternoon. I have bad news for you. Yesterday night they moved everyone in my bedroom who was in good health to other bedrooms and this morning they quarantined my new bedroom. Here they are doing things wrong and playing with our lives and violating sanitary safety measures. ICE doesn’t care about our lives. I feel depressed about this situation; I have never felt as bad as I feel now. They are treating me like an animal and my life doesn’t matter. I left my country looking for freedom and I feel disappointed because I never thought that they would treat me so badly here.”

Another Cuban detainee wrote, “buenos días, ahora mismo nos pusieron en cuarentena? ayer se llevaron a un señor con calentura, ya sabes te mantengo en contacto chao un abrazo” (we were quarantined and yesterday they took a man with fever, I’ll stay in contact, hugs).

A detainee from Cameroon with underlying health conditions wrote to inform advocates he had been transferred to a new dormitory. He was then quarantined and was having trouble getting in touch with his attorney. He wrote, “here things are not moving, you know my health condition and with the up and down moving from one dorm to another and the hygienic conditions is not good for health. we have been changed to another dorm last night. greet all and have a nice day. How is my lawyer? he is not picking calls. the dorm I was transferred last night have been quarantine now. please you know my health situation, please help me passed the message to my lawyer.”

Others alleged inadequate medical care, telling advocates staff have been ignoring heath concerns and urging those outside to speak out. A man from Kenya wrote, “thank you so much for showing a lot of concern. Things are so bad here, new infections are being reported everyday, more dorms going into quarantine! only two dorms that are not on quarantine. I was sick yesterday and went to hospital, I had chest pains around my heart, irregular heart beats, sour throat, all they did was to give me pain killers as always and salt sachets for my throat! then guess what they referred me to a psychologist!!! They know my medical condition and they continue to ignore the risk that they expose me to with my continued detention while we have confirmed cases of covid 19, my case is still under review from last week, I still haven’t heard from them. I am almost depressed. am loosing weight every day. People like you are so important in my life ryt now. I have already signed up for medical this morning coz am still sick. Yes there is that Lawsuit that was passed in court but they are not acting on it! the situation is so bad. but there is still something to hope for. This definitely, is the hardest point of my life. I try to gather as much strength as I can to help me sail through the day. its not easy. Am not asking for so much, all I need is to get released and continue my case from outside of detention as I practice social distancing. I have to mention this. I went for further test two weeks ago and they took samples of my blood and urine, coz my doctor said I could undergo a surgery, I am still waiting for my results. Thank you all for showing kindness and concern.”

Later, he wrote back, telling advocates he had been formally quarantined and was starting a hunger strike. “Just learned ryt now that they have quarantined us. Someone from our pod has been infected. I am going on hunger strike as of ryt now. I am not eating or drinking anything until they release me. I haven’t even gone to medical yet despite me telling them I am unwell.  It’s time to speak out.”