A Detention Officer Employed At An ICE Facility In Los Fresnos, Texas Died This Week. Over 60 Detainees Have Tested Positive For Coronavirus

Update June 30, 2020: ICE on Tuesday confirmed 78 positive cases. According to the agency’s published COVID-19 guidance, only 23 of those detainees were under isolation or monitoring.

Numbers published by Cameron County Public Health on Monday indicated there were 9 ICE employees at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center that had tested positive for COVID-19. The document cited 61 detainee cases, though ICE over the weekend confirmed 71. ICE does not list any employees at PIDC having tested positive. The agency does not report or confirm positive cases among its contracted detention facility staff as they’re technically not ICE employees.

Cameron County was contacted regarding communication between county officials and ICE about the outbreak. A Texas Public Information Act Request was sent to the county last week regarding testing at the facility, emails, and text messages about the spread of COVID-19 inside the facility.

Update June 29, 2020: On Sunday, ICE confirmed 71 positive COVID-19 cases inside the Port Isabel Detention Center. 28 of those detainees were under isolation or monitoring. ICE has not reported any positive cases among agency employees at PIDC.

Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley received permission to post Steven Tendo’s personal information and A-Number. Tendo is only 35 years old. Organizers are urging members of the public to contact members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus. All information is available here.

In a message sent on Saturday evening, a detainee warned that a friend had a high fever and was taken to the infirmary. “[Detainee] had high fever and was taken to the infirmary! for a couple of days now we have not been able to hear from him. We suspects he might have gotten the virus too. Right now, we have got 72 detainees, and 14 officials who are positive,” wrote the detainee.

Steven Tendo, a 35-year-old Ugandan pastor fighting for his release from the Port Isabel Detention Center and against his imminent deportation to Uganda. Tendo sought asylum in 2018 after being targeted and tortured for his participation in human rights work. Attorneys in touch with a Ugandan official say she warned them Tendo won’t make it out of the airport if he lands in Uganda. Credit: Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley.

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A spokesperson for Ahtna, Inc, an Alaska Native Regional Corporation that contracts detention facility workers at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas, confirmed on Saturday that one of their employees contracted at PIDC passed away on Thursday, June 25.

Asked to confirm whether reports of a detention officer at the facility passing away due to COVID-19 were true, Ahtna’s corporate communications director Shannon Blue replied, “We can confirm that an Ahtna Support and Training Services employee at Port Isabel Detention Center passed away on June 25, 2020. Our heartfelt condolences go out to the valued team member’s family and loved ones. We will not be providing any further information out of respect for the family.  Our focus right now is on supporting the employee’s family and helping our employees through the grieving process.”

Though Ahtna did not specify the cause of death, a City Commissioner in San Benito posted via a personal Facebook page Friday night that one of the county’s two reported coronavirus deaths was a detention officer at PIDC. Advocates in touch with detainees on Friday were also investigating reports of a death related to the facility. ICE declined to confirm the death, as the officer technically was not employed by the agency.

ICE does not publish information on positive coronavirus cases among contract employees at its detention facilities. The agency’s COVID-19 guidance does not list any employees in Los Fresnos with positive cases. As of Thursday, ICE reported 64 positive cases among detainees at PIDC. 22 of those detainees were under isolation or monitoring. At the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville, the agency reported one active case. According to ICE’s most recent statistics, there are currently 23,429 detainees in the agency’s custody nationwide. ICE’s website states that the facility’s population has dropped by nearly 7,000 detainees since March 1. The agency posts a list of charges next to court-ordered judicial releases related to the virus and is supposedly working to coordinate discretionary release for those detainees who do not present a flight risk, which would result in bond hearings.

Reports detailing concerning conditions inside the facility prompted U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, Jr. to sent two letters to ICE Acting Director Matthew T. Albence calling on the agency to immediately provide information on how it’s responding to the pandemic and to release detainees, who at this point have arguably all been exposed to the virus in some capacity. One of Vela’s aides confirmed on Friday the office had not received any response from the agency. A lack of adequate PPE, soap, and cleaning supplies, as well as ICE’s initial refusal to confirm reports from detainees of the presence of the virus inside the facility, prompted two mass hunger strikes. Norma Herrera of Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network said on Friday that Yoirlan Tome Rojas, one of two Cuban detainees who initiated individual hunger strikes, ended his strike and was allegedly force-fed. Herrera indicated she was surprised that Rojas was force-fed so soon. There was no record of ICE having filed for a temporary restraining order against Rojas in the Southern District of Texas, as is protocol.

Detainees this week indicated that all dorms are under quarantine and that at least one dorm in the “Delta” unit is possibly being used as an overflow space for detainees who are COVID-19 positive or otherwise under isolation or monitoring but don’t fit in the medical unit. “We’ve been hearing all along that people are being denied testing, that the medical personnel will come into the dorms asking if they have a fever, but anything short of that, you don’t get testing,” said Herrera. “This last weekend on Saturday, so six days ago, an entire dorm — more than 30 people — were expressing that they had symptoms like fever, chills, and body aches and they all wanted tests. Medical staff allegedly told detainees that ICE did not approve testing for any of them because there were “too many of you”.

Both Herrera and local immigration attorneys with clients inside the facility have been told by detainees that sometimes even individuals who have fevers aren’t being tested. Attorney Cathy Potter, one of three representing Steven, a pastor from Uganda with severe diabetes, said her client has never actually seen the facility’s doctor. Potter heard from another attorney that a detainee’s wife reported her husband never sees the doctor — only nurses at the clinic. Herrera said, “I’m talking to at least one who has been having fevers every night and he still has not been given a test. This is against the backdrop of ICE reporting a decrease in the number of people that are under isolation or monitoring. They’re down to 22. That’s really interesting because the overall case count continues to increase,” she said.

Herrera speculated this might be due to the fact that detainees are still being shuffled across the country on ICE Air flights between detention centers, or perhaps that officials are releasing detainees and opting to administer rapid tests according to policy, then not counting those numbers in the totals. “I’m thinking that either they wait to report on certain people until they’re no longer positive, or as soon as they know they’re positive they’re transferring, releasing, or deporting. Last weekend, I heard from someone who was to be deported. They did a rapid test right before, and he tested negative, clearing him for deportation. When he got to Alexandria, Louisiana (the site of a large ICE staging facility), they did another rapid test, and he tested positive there. He called to say the tests at Port Isabel aren’t working,” said Herrera.

“I think they do use laboratory-based tests when someone is going to remain in the facility because detainees have told me they got tested and were still waiting on results. The detainee who called me was in Alexandria. They have since transferred him to the Winn Correctional Center and he’s in quarantine for 14 days before he’s deported.”

Potter cited a similar case where one of her clients was released. Aid organizations paid the man’s bond and went to pick him up alongside four other detainees. “They assumed when they paid the bond that they weren’t testing at that point — that ICE was going to hold him for a day to make sure he wasn’t positive. They let him out early, so volunteers ran to get him. He was going to Vermont, where of course they test, but he was on a plane. They got him there, they tested him, and he was positive for about a week,” said Potter.

“The people they deport, I assure you, they’re not counting them. And if they get them out to a hospital before, then detainees aren’t counted, they’re not in ICE custody. That’s where we are.”

The latest report compiled by Witness at the Border’s Flight Tracking Team documented 2,036 ICE Air flights since the beginning of the year. Organizers documented 388 total ICE Air deportations, 364 ICE deportation returns, and 1,284 total domestic ICE Air flights. ICE Air information is not publicly available and so the team tracks deportation flights through the use of apps like Flight Aware, which lists contracted flights operated by companies like Swift Air (iAero) and World Atlantic (Caribbean Sun). The last flight operated by World Atlantic was documented by the team in March. After tracking, organizers wrote they then “filter the flights to the likely ICE Air deportation and destination locations to identify, within a small margin of error, the deportation flights. To do this we use the knowledge and experience we gained through tracking ICE Air for several months. Any errors in our estimations we believe are small and certainly immaterial to the analysis that follows.”

The report does not document the number of detainees on any given flight but suggests that it’s very likely the shuffling of detainees to detention centers across the country, as well as to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, have contributed to the rising number of cases in those areas. One chart showed 81 flights YTD from Alexandria, Louisiana to Brownsville, Texas. ICE contracted 47 flights from Brownsville to Alexandria. Other routes with significant totals included San Antonio to Brownsville, where organizers documented 49 flights, and Phoenix, Arizona, to El Paso, Texas, with 34 total flights. From Miami, Florida to Columbus, Georgia, ICE chartered 49 flights. The team documented 42 flights each from Brownsville to Guatemala City, Guatemala and San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

Organizers with Team Brownsville posted a photo of another detainee recently released from PIDC who allegedly wasn’t tested despite ICE claiming otherwise. “J is from Guatemala. He was released this morning from Port Isabel Detention Center. He spent 8 months behind bars for wanting a better life. He’s very quiet and cautious. He doesn’t know who to trust anymore. After 8 months of mistreatment who can blame him? He’s headed to Utah tomorrow to meet his brother. We are providing warm food and shelter as he embarks on a two-and-a-half-day journey. Imagine being in a foreign country, you don’t speak the language, you have $0 to your name, there’s a pandemic, and you have to switch buses 6 times over several days. It’s nothing compared to the dangers that brought him here,” organizers wrote. “According to ICE, he was medically cleared to be released from a chest X-ray he had. He said there was no X-ray.”

Photo Credit: Team Brownsville

Photo Credit: Team Brownsville

Organizers with both Team Brownsville and Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley on Friday scrambled to help J after he missed one of his bus connections. In a Facebook post, Team Brownsville co-founder Sergio Cordova wrote, “He was attacked and beaten almost to death. He was left by ICE at the Brownsville bus station with nothing but what he is wearing. His brother that lives in Salt Lake City will sponsor him. Because of COVID, the brother is not working. Team Brownsville, Angry Tias and Abuelas and IWC of San Antonio joined forces to help. We bought him a bus ticket to Salt Lake City. We knew he was challenged so we brought him a cell phone.”

“We lost him today. He got off the bus in Karnes, TX to use the restroom and the bus left him,” wrote Cordova, explaining how a volunteer drove 80 miles to find him and get him a hotel room.

At PIDC, advocates and attorneys allege detainees are still not receiving adequate soap, cleaning supplies, or medication. “I talked to one detainee who tested positive that told me his treatment is basically an 800 mg dose of ibuprofen, a pill for congestion, and a cough suppressant. I talked to another person who said basically the same thing — this is one of the people who’s having nightly fevers, who hasn’t been tested. He’s clearly positive, he’s in his dorm, and they just tell him to drink lots of water and give him ibuprofen,” said Herrera. “Another thing that’s really important to emphasize is that ICE is using this practice that they call cohorting. Those are mass quarantines. If someone inside a dorm shows symptoms and they’re taken out for testing, ICE shuts down the entire dorm. What folks keep stressing is that this forces the people inside to be exposed to the virus even if they hadn’t been infected before the quarantine.”

The process is likely contributing to the spread inside dormitories. “There’s something like 50, 60, 70 people in a dorm. That’s significant,” she added. The organizer spoke with detainees who said the situation is psychologically stressful. The uncertainty combined with quarantine and the knowledge that coronavirus is already inside the facility is creating panic among detainees. One detainee told Herrera, “Here, they kill you psychologically.”

“It was striking language and I speaks to how many of them are feeling. The calls sound more panicked, more desperate — the way they talk about their own fears, about what’s going to happen to them keeps escalating and getting more and more severe,” Herrera explained. Asked whether detainees informed her of any new instances of retaliation, the organizer said it appears that has only been the case when detainees initiate hunger strikes. “When they go on hunger strike they’re threatened with solitary confinement. Some of them are actually placed in solitary. I’ve also heard that when they talk to reporters they’re threatened with solitary. After a demonstration outside PIDC on June 6, Herrera got a call from detainees in the dormitory who called her to speak with reporters in which they told her that multiple officials came into the dorm and were “very upset with them for having called us and for announcing the hunger strike”, threatening to put detainees in solitary, which ICE refers to as “disciplinary segregation.” As per ICE’s hunger strike policy, the agency can isolate and monitor any detainee who hasn’t eaten for 72 hours, the point at which officials formally recognize a hunger strike.

Advocates continue to urge elected officials to make an unannounced visit to the facility. Cameron County officials have been in touch with advocates regarding the developing situation at PIDC, and while they’re taking some steps, including possibly drafting a letter to ICE, Herrera and others don’t feel they’re going far enough. “We’ve sent suggestions and guidance. We even shared draft language with them. They’re being very cautious and we even heard that a lawyer for the county asked Vela’s office for the letter he sent to model it after the questions they asked. I think they could be asking more. This has clearly, clearly materialized into a crisis. The worst could happen. Someone could die. Multiple people could die, and I don’t think we’re doing enough to respond to that.”

According to Herrera, mask use on the part of guards at PIDC is better but still inconsistent. That’s based on reports from detainees, which can vary. Detainees said this week the facility is understaffed, and Herrera said an interesting camaraderie appears to be developing between guards and detainees as the virus spreads. “We suspect the folks that are still employed there are people who have no other employment options and have to go back to work. There has been an interesting sense of shared struggle developing among the guards and the people detained. So much so that a few weeks ago, one of them told me they have a prayer circle in the dorm, and that guards joined them and bowed their heads,” she said. “The guards get to go home at night, of course, but they’re still in harm’s way and so are facing the same threat to their health.”

Messages sent to advocates through an ICE-monitored system on Friday indicated higher numbers than what ICE has reported publicly. One wrote, “I thought I should update you on what’s happening in the facility now .there are 71 detainees infected 14 officers infected 1 dead.”

Another wrote that he wasn’t being medicated, writing in Spanish, “In my dormitory 5 people left with the 19 covid and since yesterday I have been feeling discomfort in my whole body and headache and tremors and my kidneys are hurting and I have the flu and I went to the doctor and what they gave me It was ibuprofen for the pain, this is hard and more people continue to come out and I feel very bad.”

One day prior, the same man wrote, “In my dorm, the majority of the people have symptoms, this is hard, and every day it gets worse.” The same say, another man who spoke with reporters at a major network contacted advocates sounding panicked. He wrote, “I am anxious that my interview is published because this gets worse every day and they do not release anyone every day there are more infected people.”

An advocate who has been in touch with detainees for over a year and a half said based on messages received this week, it sounds like pod D-4 “is most likely an isolation ward of sorts”. The advocate continued, “D-3 seems to be where those finishing quarantine are put; although they sent 2 sick people from B3 to D3, where one of the French speakers is.”

A detainee in pod Alpha 2 wrote on Saturday to say the dorm had been in quarantine since June 9. “The quarantine was to end on June 22, 2020, but they extended again because we had a new infection. Each time the virus is detected in a dorm, the dorm is placed on a 14 days quarantine. The quarantine period is extended whenever there is a new infection. There was a time when almost all detainees in my dorm were coughing and sneezing but it is better now.”

Attorney Cathy Potter said based on information she received, there were few detention officers inside the facility. Her client, Steven, is in a dorm under quarantine that is supposed to return to normal operations on Sunday, according to advocates. Steven is under a final order of removal that will have him sent back to Uganda in early July despite an ongoing appeal in his asylum case at the Board of Immigration Appeals. His diabetes became severe over his year and a half in ICE detention where he hasn’t been given adequate treatment. Officials refused him a proper diabetic diet or even a kosher diet that would be more suitable for his condition, according to court documents filed in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus earlier this year. Steven was denied discretionary humanitarian release early this month based on a 14-page document compiled during an investigation by the Department of State and Ugandan immigration authorities that ICE said indicated he used false documents to obtain a passport to leave Uganda. ICE submitted only two pages to a federal judge. The other 12 pages indicated officials determined Steven had actually obtained his travel documents legally.

“He started doing human rights work and assistance to political prisoners in the jails, then he did voting rights work and they chopped off two of his fingers in a torture session,” said attorney Jennifer Harbury. Officials also dripped melting plastic bags onto his legs, from which the pastor stil has deep scars on his shins. “His diabetes is out of control now,” she added. Steven’s immune system is severely compromised and he has likely already been exposed to the virus. He has painful boils all over his body stemming from the condition and has lost vision in one eye. A doctor recommended surgery, but ICE has yet to provide it.

“Basically everyone in Port Isabel has now been heavily, heavily exposed to coronavirus,” Harbury said. An official in Uganda informed advocates this week that if Steven were to be deported, he would be kidnapped and murdered before he makes it out of the airport terminal. “If that happens, it’s all over. They really want him back, which is blood-curdling,” said Harbury.

Steven’s sister was attacked, beaten, and hospitalized last week when Ugandan officials got word of his pending deportation. Advocates chose to take the situation public in June when the pastor was first denied humanitarian release. No legal proceedings, including appeals of his asylum case to the BIA and the Fifth Circuit, as well as habeas and temporary restraining order petitions, have proven successful, though one of his followers was granted asylum by the same immigration judge that denied Steven’s application. The pastor’s attorneys have instructed him to absolutely refuse to get on the plane based on fear of death. “That has actually worked in other cases. But, I’m afraid Steven’s case isn’t like that because it has become a sort of face issue for ICE,” said Potter.

The attorney was recently at the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville, Texas, and was denied entry because her shirt had spaghetti straps, yet officials were not taking temperatures. She returned later in the week. “All of a sudden, everybody has masks and they were taking temperatures. That means they’re under pressure, but this is basically locking the barn door after the horse has been stolen because now they have numerous cases. It’s undercounted,” she said.

Statements Potter received from detainees suggested ICE is providing them two small bottles of shampoo. Detainees in crowded dormitories can only clean the open toilet bowls twice a day when ICE provides cleaning supplies. While the facility population might be down, detainees indicated they are still sleeping within six feet of each other. According to messages Steven sent advocates on Saturday, there has been no soap for four days, even though the dormitory has repeatedly asked for it. Detainees who have the money are able to purchase soap from the commissary.