Coronavirus Outbreak at the Port Isabel Detention Center Spreads

Update June 23, 2020: ICE reported 58 positive cases among detainees inside PIDC on Monday. 34 of those detainees were under isolation or monitoring.

Update June 22, 2020: Numbers published by ICE on Sunday indicated the number of positive cases among detainees inside PIDC was still at 54. The agency reported that only 36 of those detainees were under isolation or monitoring. At the El Valle Detention Facility, one detainee was under isolation or monitoring.

Update June 19, 2020: The outbreak inside the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas continues to grow. ICE on Thursday confirmed 54 positive detainee cases inside the detention facility. 41 of those detainees were under isolation or monitoring. At the El Valle Detention Center in Raymondville, Texas, ICE reported only one positive detainee case.

Update June 17, 2020: ICE confirmed 42 positive cases inside PIDC. 32 of those cases were under isolation or monitoring, with the agency having last updated its detainee statistics on June 16.

Update June 15, 2020: On Monday, ICE reported 36 positive cases among detainees inside the facility. 33 of those detainees were listed as under isolation or monitoring.

The agency reported just one case at the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville, the same number as last week. According to one detainee inside the facility in contact with locally-based advocates, a guard told him there were multiple staff that tested positive for COVID-19.

Norma Herrera of the RGV Equal Voice Network was working with advocates to determine how many dorms are currently under quarantine. Some estimates from detainees indicated 10 out of the 16 total dorms were under quarantine, while a couple reported 15 out of 16 dorms quarantined.

Both estimates represented a increase from the eight dorms the detainees reported to be under quarantine last week.

. . .

A COVID-19 outbreak is spreading rapidly inside the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas according to advocates and attorneys representing clients stuck in quarantined dorms. Some of those detainees have underlying medical conditions that place them at risk of serious illness or death if they come in contact with the virus.

On Friday, ICE reported a total of 34 confirmed cases among detainees inside the facility. 31 of those detainees were under isolation or monitoring — a huge increase in cases from the eight total the agency reported on Monday. By Thursday, the agency reported 26 confirmed coronavirus cases among detainees with 23 under isolation or observation, validating concerns detainees at PIDC have been communicating to attorneys and advocates for weeks. ICE on Thursday reported an additional case at the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville, Texas — the first to be reported from inside the facility.

Attorneys for Steven, a severely diabetic Ugandan pastor detained at PIDC, filed a complaint against PIDC and ICE with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) on Tuesday alleging the lack of adequate medical protections at the Port Isabel Detention Center. Steven, who is going blind due to inadequate treatment of his diabetes over the year and a half he’s been in ICE custody, told his attorneys last weekend he had flu-like symptoms. “The bunk beds are 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, “ wrote attorney Jennifer Harbury in the complaint.

Norma Herrera of RGV Equal Voice Network on Wednesday said the rise in ICE’s reported cases substantiated what she’s already been hearing. “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,” she said. 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 dorms reportedly under quarantine included “Charle 3 (58 people inside); Charlie 4 (40 people inside), Alpha 1, 2, and 4; Bravo 2, 3, and 4”.

“He says there’s an average of 35 people per quarantined dorm, so that’s an estimated 280 under quarantine,” wrote Herrera.

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.”

Court records showed that ICE filed a petition in federal court in Brownsville on Wednesday in which the agency seeks to forcibly hydrate a detainee, K.K., who was on hunger strike. Last weekend, detainees told Herrera and reporters that 120 detainees initiated a hunger strike on Sunday morning in protest of their ongoing detention. Detainees reported that an addition hunger strike began on June 5. ICE confirmed in a statement that two detainees had been on hunger strike since June 3, declining to provide specific information on the ongoing hunger strikes and quarantines. “ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference,” the agency wrote, referring inquiries to its published hunger strike policy.

Early this week, U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, Jr. sent a letter to ICE Acting Director Matthew T. Albence 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, but Rojas on Monday entered his second week without food. “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,” Vela wrote.

In a second letter addressed to Albence on Friday, Vela asked the agency’s leadership to address numerous concerns regarding staff adherence to CDC guidelines and ICE’s own Pandemic Response Requirements. “The novel coronavirus has already claimed the lives of two individuals in ICE custody, and infected more than a thousand detainees. Moreover, there are 45 confirmed COVID-19 cases among employees. The actual number of infections is likely much higher due to the fact that ICE has only tested about 12 percent of the total detained population. Despite ICE’s claims that it has taken measures to protect the people in its custody, reports from those detained indicate a clear disregard of CDC guidelines and ICE’s own Pandemic Response Requirements. Medical experts also warn ICE detention facilities are woefully unprepared to treat patients who contract COVID-19. Countless lives are at risk as long as they remain in ICE custody,” Vela wrote.

He continued, “Reports from conditions at PIDC indicate ICE does not provide sufficient protective gear of hygiene products, fails to provide timely information on how to prevent infection, and is either unable or unwilling to implement social distancing measures. Additionally, detention staff are not required to wear masks despite the extremely close quarters and rapid spread of the virus. These conditions have led to an outbreak of 34 confirmed cases at PIDC.”

“Given the increase in reported infections in detention centers across the country and at PIDC, I urge ICE to adequately follow all CDC guidelines and recommendations to fight the spread of COVID-19, and immediately release all non-violent detainees, using established protocols.”

Attorneys representing non-violent detainees inside the facility have repeatedly expressed concern that ICE denies discretionary humanitarian release to those who should be eligible based upon misrepresented information. This was particularly evident in Steven’s case, when ICE denied him release from PIDC based on two pages of a 14-page document submitted by ICE’s attorney making it appear the man had used false information to obtain a passport to leave Uganda. ICE left out the remaining pages, said attorney Cathy Potter. The limited information provided caused a federal judge to deny her client’s motion for a temporary restraining order seeking his immediate release due to extreme risk of serious illness or death if he were to become ill. Steven was displaying flu-like symptoms this week.

In the latest letter, Vela asked ICE to provide detailed explanations of how the agency is keeping quarantined detainees at PIDC separate from non-quarantined detainees, as well as the steps ICE has taken to protect high risk detainees inside the facility. “How many non-violent detainees have been released from PIDC? How many more non-violent detainees are you planning to release?” he asked Albence.

Vela also requeted data, disaggregated by nationality, on the number of detainees at PIDC who have been tested for the virus and the number of detainees who have tested positive, as well as that same data for PIDC personnel.