Update September 7, 2020: Tendo’s attorneys got word that ICE has agreed to remove the pastor’s name from all scheduled flight manifests and tentatively halt his deportation until the Fifth Circuit rules on his petition for review. One of his attorneys confirmed that there is no deadline for the court to rule. ICE has also stated the agency plans to reschedule Tendo’s eye surgery. The pastor cheered when he heard the news from the Florence Correctional Complex. “I do not have words,” he said, adding that just the possibility he gets to stay gives him hope, and that he will be able to sleep tonight.
Tendo first called from the facility a few hours before his attorneys received notification of ICE’s decision. He reported that medical staff visited his two-person cell and provided the two prisoners, both detained by ICE, with all of their medication. The sudden provision of the items suggested to Tendo that he and others were being prepped for deportation.
Tendo also confirmed that the man he knows by the name of Andrew Kamali was directly involved in his torture in Uganda. “He even came down [to Uganda] when I was being tortured. He wrote blackmailing messages on Facebook and Whatsapp and contacted so many people who knew me and sent them emails and what have you,” the pastor said.
“And then he was down there instructing the people who were torturing me, because his uncle was in the army. He received instructions from his uncle and he also takes information about people not supporting the government. And when he wants to — when he takes interest in someone, he’s always on the ground to make sure they are tortured. That’s why he went back now — to make sure that I find him down there to influence and order my torture.”
. . .
Update September 6, 2020: At least three people claiming to know Tendo from Uganda have written emails containing links to old newspaper articles or in reference to charges his attorneys have proven via court documents he was acquitted of. One of those people was a self-identified “influencer” from Uganda named Manuela Pacutho Mulondo.
Tendo confirmed on Sunday that he knows Mulondo. He said that Mulondo’s mother accused him of stealing her car, then pursued those charges in criminal court, allegedly under the influence of Uganda’s State House. According to the pastor, Mulondo’s aunt works for the U.S. Embassy in Uganda. Her brother allegedly entered into a relationship with Tendo’s ex-wife upon his arrest, imprisonment, and torture. Tendo alleged the family told him “they would use their aunt and the connection they have in the embassy to make sure that they would frustrate me and would never set foot in America.”
On her Facebook page, Mulondo writes that she is a “workplace gender equality advocate” and that she was a member of the inaugural class of Obama Foundation and is a Mandela Washington Fellowship alumni. She lists the same email on her Facebook page that she used to send the email regarding Tendo’s alleged criminal history. She operates under the name on both Twitter and Instagram.
Mulando references false charges — namely that Steven stole her mother’s car. He did not. A formal acquittal document signed by Chief Magistrate Judge Lillian Bueyana of Uganda on April 28, 2017 states:
“The case for the prosecution is a mixed up one. The amount alleged to have obtained is not clearly brought out. From the evidence, the amount claimed is specific to that in relation to procuring a Noah vehicle. So how does pal claim 4.7 and her son puts the claim at 2.8 or 1.8. Certainly in the amount claimed is essential. In the absence of that, prosecution appears to be on a fishing expedition in the hope that the bait will catch anything. But in criminal proceedings, proof required is beyond reasonable doubt. This standard of proof has not been discharged and the accused is acquitted.”
A summary of the unproven allegations states:
“Tendo Steven, the accused, is charged with three counts of obtaining money by false pretenses contrary to section 305 of the Penal Code Act.
The prosecution alleged that on 22nd October 2013, December 2013, and March 2014, the accused, with intent to defraud, obtained two thousand five hundred dollars ($2500), another undisclosed sum, and one million eight hundred thousand Uganda shillings (1.800.000) respectively, from Agnes Rutaitsire, by pretending that he would import for her a motor vehicle from Japan, remove it from the ConsoBase in Mombasa, and transport it from Mombasa to Kampala and clear URG dues, respectively whereas not.”
Though Tendo was acquitted, Mulondo left that out of her email. She wrote in an email sent on Saturday, September 5:
“We support your plight to keep Tendo Steven in your country. He isn’t needed here in Uganda because he is a thieving pastor, stealing from his flock to get money to come to your countries and decieve of a life he doesn’t have. We see he already lied to you that the reason he is being “persecuted” here in Uganda is because of politics and human rights. An absolute lie from the pit of hell. I personally will be among the people who will be with police at the airport to arrest him if he is deported becaus he stole my old mother’s car. He lied that he was a car importer and took my mother’s hard earned cash. As an influencer in Uganda, I will let all the news agencies know of his arrival and all police cases against him will be brought forward to get him arrested.
Allow me reiterate, Steven Tendo is a fraud, not a pastor but an imposter, and has never been involved in any political work or engagements and there’s no such charges against him by the gov’t of Uganda. All charges are by individuals like my self and my family seeking justice from a man who is not representing our Lord’s name. Again, The Governement of Uganda has NO INTEREST in Tendo Steven because he is nothing to the government. The thought of it is laughable and its sad to see that a respectable person like you has been put into this debacle by Steven. But welcome to the club, he did it to us all.
Ps. If you would like any proof of what I am saying feel free to reach out. Emails, phone records, video recordings everything.
If you doubt my authenticity as an individual, you can check out all my social media channels, Manuela P. Mulondo to find out more about the work I do here in Uganda. It would help our country if you kept Tendo Steven with you. We don’t need him here.”
Mulando threatens to inform the media in order to get Tendo re-arrested, writing, “As an influencer in Uganda, I will let all the news agencies know of his arrival and all police cases against him will be brought forward to get him arrested.”
Additionally, she suggests that she will somehow have access to information about Tendo’s arrival and that authorities intend to arrest Tendo in spite of his acquittal when she states, “I personally will be among the people who will be with police at the airport to arrest him if he is deported”.
Tendo stated he suspects that one of the individuals involved with the false charges against him likely facilitated the “off the record” information given to the U.S. immigration judge that originally decided his case, causing the judge to deny the pastor’s original asylum claim.
Mulando would be aware of Tendo’s imminent removal through her alleged government connections, which he attributed to the family’s purported alignment with the National Resistance Party and President Yoweri Museveni (who has been in power since 1986). As both Tendo and his attorneys have explained, there are Ugandan nationals operating as “spies” that live in the United States and track dissidents. One, by the name of Andrew Kamali (who as per Tendo lives in Seattle, Washington), allegedly boarded a flight back to Uganda upon learning that Tendo’s deportation is imminent. Tendo said on Sunday, “He went back down there to organize to hurt me.”
Tendo got word of this through a family member, who was warned “to be ready” — that Kamali would be in wait for Tendo. “He is an army operative working here on the grounds of spying on who comes to America and who may speak evil about the government. So, all these things are making me frightened already,” he said.
“And they will do anything to hurt me. That’s why they are sending those messages to show they are ready.”
Tendo is currently scheduled to be deported on Monday or Tuesday. His petition for review at the Fifth Circuit remains pending.
. . .
Update September 3, 2020: Tendo called attorney Jennifer Harbury from the Florence Processing Center in Florence, AZ on Wednesday evening. A member of Witness at the Border’s flight tracking team confirmed that a flight potentially chartered for ICE Air landed in Phoenix from Alexandria at around 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Advocates are asking ICE to hold off on Tendo’s removal to Uganda until the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decides whether or not to order a new trial in Tendo’s asylum case. He is pending deportation on Monday or Tuesday. Harbury provided an update on social media which includes information on how to contact members of Congress on Tendo’s behalf:
“Last week Pastor Steven had been sent to a number of medical visits to prepare for his eye surgery, which was scheduled for today, September 3, 2020. We were all happy that at least one of his eyes could begin to heal. However, on Monday he was told he was going to be sent Tuesday morning to Louisiana, and promptly deported to Uganda. We of course went into fight mode, notifying both Congress and the United Nations and countless other attorneys and NGOs. On Tuesday he was told he was going to Laredo, but no one would say which facility. He had decided that he would not take an unlawful deportation without a fight, but a large group of ICE agents tackled him and shackled him as they knelt on his back. He is in pain as a result but he stood up for himself. He was then taken to Laredo but not to any ICE facility. He was put on a flight to Louisiana and sent to the Alexandria staging center for deportation set for September 3. We continued to scramble. Yesterday, Wednesday, he was put on a flight to Arizona and he is now at the Florence processing center and is set for deportation either Monday or Tuesday. I suspect he was hustled out of PIDC early in order to cancel his eye surgery planned for today. Several Congresspersons have been truly wonderful. U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro, Lloyd Doggett, James McGovern and Filemon Vela are doing everything they can. They are working with U.S. Rep. Bernie Thompson, the Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee. We are all asking that ICE simply hold off deporting him until the Fifth Circuit decides whether or not to order a new trial. Given the evidence there is a strong chance they will. However, they refused to issue a stay of removal and now the BIA has refused to reopen his case. The Petition for Review at the Fifth Circuit is very much alive, although some ICE officers wrongly stated yesterday that it had been denied.”
“PLEASE CALL CONGRESS: There are many important offices to call. Voicing thanks to our Champion Representatives named above is always important and they do deserve the thanks big time. Emails or personal notes are also excellent. As 44 MOC already signed the Congressional letter two weeks ago, perhaps it is time to also call some key U.S. Senators. I recommend these offices, since these are Senators who have already expressed commitment to the human rights of migrants and serve on the corresponding committee. Please express thanks when you call but ask them to take urgent action. If they want documentation, please send me a request at firstname.lastname@example.org. and let me know the name and email address of the legislative aid requesting the materials. I will send them promptly. Senator Cory Booker: 202-224-3224 or 973-639-8700 Senator Patrick Leahy: 202-224-4242 or 802-863-2525 Senator Dianne Feinstein: 202-224-3841 or 415-393-0707 Senator Dick Durbin 202-224-2152 or 312- 353- 4952.”
. . .
Update September 2, 2020: Attorney Jennifer Harbury confirmed that the Board of Immigration Appeals denied Tendo’s motion to reopen his asylum case. Initially attorneys though he had been moved again — this time to Florence, AZ. As of 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Tendo was purportedly still at the ICE staging facility in Alexandria, Louisiana. Later in the afternoon, his attorney reported that Tendo was supposedly en route to Arizona, though his legal team remained uncertain as to his whereabouts. Tendo has not responded to messages, suggesting that he does not have the ability to send them, though he has been able to contact his attorney by phone once booked into a facility.
According to ICE’s updated numbers, the staging facility in Alexandria has 14 active positive COVID-19 cases among detainees. The agency has reported a total of 133 cases inside the facility. Given that Alexandria is a major deportation hub, it is more than likely that the actual number of positives varies from reported totals. During transport and removal, detainees and staff move in and out of the facility and into vehicles and aircrafts, potentially facilitating further spread. 15 employees at the facility have tested positive for COVID-19, according to ICE. That total does not include ICE’s contract staff members.
Two detention centers in Florence, AZ — the CCA (CoreCivic)-operated Florence Correctional Correctional Center and the Florence Detention Center — have documented COVID-19 outbreaks. As do the Eloy Federal Contract Facility and the La Palma Correctional Facility, both in the Florence area, south of Phoenix.
Florence Correctional Center has seen a reported total of 20 positive detainee cases with two active positives. The Florence Detention Center has three positive cases among detainees and a reported total of 64 cases. At the Eloy Federal Contract Facility, 249 cases have been reported. ICE lists only one detainee with an active positive case. The outbreak at La Palma is massive, with the agency reporting 217 active positive cases and 356 total.
ICE has reported two employee cases under its Phoenix Field Office, one at Eloy and another at the Florence Correctional Center.
In Texas, the COVID-19 outbreak continues to grow at the El Valle Detention Facility. ICE reported 37 cases on Wednesday. 25 detainees have active positive cases, according to the agency. The case numbers reported from the Port Isabel Detention Center did not change.
An aide with U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela’s office confirmed Wednesday afternoon that the office was reaching out to ICE in an attempt to halt Tendo’s deportation. The 44 members of Congress who signed onto the letter asking Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf for Tendo’s release on medical parole last month were asked to contact ICE as well.
Tendo’s Bivens lawsuit remains pending. His attorney Cathy Potter stated that ICE could still be answerable to the litigation even after his possible deportation.
Amnesty International published a letter template on its website in support of Tendo that users can fill out to be sent to Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf and ICE Executive Associate Director Henry Lucero. The template asks officials to stop Tendo’s deportation and to release the pastor on humanitarian parole so that he can access proper medical care while continuing to pursue his right to seek asylum.
The template is available here.
. . .
Update September 1, 2020: Tendo contacted his attorney on Tuesday night from Louisiana. According to Harbury, ICE drove Tendo to Laredo, but not to a facility. Instead, he arrived at the airport, where the agency then transferred him to its staging facility in Alexandria. Tendo is set for deportation on Thursday. As of Tuesday morning, the Board of Immigration Appeals had not ruled on either of his pending motions.
Update September 1, 2020: According to ICE’s latest report, there are 136 total documented COVID-19 cases and two active positive case at the Port Isabel Detention Center. At the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville, ICE reported 34 total cases and 20 detainees with active cases under isolation or monitoring.
Attorneys for Steven Tendo are fighting the pastor’s imminent deportation. Tendo called just past 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday. He explained that he received a visit from his detention officer the night before, during which he learned that he would allegedly be transferred to Louisiana, then likely deported. Two minutes into the conversation, guards arrived in the dorm, purportedly to take Tendo from the facility.
Tendo has made clear that his body is too weak to physically resist in the event that he is actually brought to the airport. His attorneys have instructed him to refuse to get on the plane. “I don’t know what to do,” he said.
The arrival of the guards turned out to be a quick visit. Tendo called back 15 minutes later when the officials left. The pastor said his messaging capabilities had been cut off the night before and that he would try to call back, but did not.
His attorney Jennifer Harbury wrote in an update Tuesday evening, “Last night, August 31, 2020, I received a call from Pastor Steven Tendo. He had just been told that he was going to be transferred to a Louisiana ICE facility early the next morning (i.e. today, Sept 1, 2020). He was very concerned about this since it meant he would not receive his long-awaited eye surgery for diabetes-related cataracts, which was scheduled for Thursday, September 3, 2020. He was also concerned that he was about to be deported. In fact, ICE officers have long been telling him he is going to be deported, and the Louisiana facilities are often the final stop before such deportation. This morning, he was still at the Port Isabel Detention Center. As of mid-morning he was told by ICE officials that in fact he would be sent to a Laredo, Texas facility. This is a 3-4-hour drive from his lawyers, who are in Harlingen, Texas. No ICE officials have responded to our questions as to whether or not Mr. Tendo will be given his surgery on Thursday as planned. He has completed all pre-op examinations and testing by his physicians throughout the last week. I have spoken in person to his eye doctor at the outside eye clinic. Steven has a thick cataract in one eye which requires surgery. He will probably need glasses afterwards. Although surgery will still be effective later on, as the cataract grows larger there could be surgical complications; such as a need for 2 surgeries to fully remove the cataract, or difficulties placing the lens. There is a smaller cataract in his other eye, which also requires surgery. If it continues to grow, he will also lose his vision in that eye. Steven’ attorney, Cathy Potter, has contacted the BIA to see if there has been any ruling on the pending Motion to Reopen, and the Motion for Stay of Removal. As of this morning there were no new rulings. However, the BIA official did state that they have been told by ICE that Steven’s deportation is imminent, perhaps on September 8. If this is correct, the BIA must rule before that date. (The Fifth Circuit has not yet ruled on the petition for Review, and earlier denied the stay of removal.) So we are awaiting a decision by the BIA, and also confirmation from ICE that removal is really imminent. This position has varied quite a bit over the last many months.”
The Rio Grande Detention Center and the Webb County Detention Center (operated by CCA/CoreCivic) both have active COVID-19 outbreaks, placing Tendo at even greater risk inside a facility where staff does not know the severity or history of his deteriorating health. At Rio Grande, ICE reported two active positive COVID-19 cases and 161 total. The Webb County Detention Center has 66 active positive cases among detainees out of 86 total documented cases, according to the agency. Notable is that detainees inside PIDC have reported since the outbreak began that ICE has not been entirely transparent about the number of positive cases inside. According to Tendo, the agency continues to transfer detainees in and out of the facility. The prisoners have limited access to soap, PPE, and cleaning supplies.
. . .
Update August 21, 2020: Tendo’s attorney Cathy Potter said on Friday that she suspects the two unknown officials who visited Tendo and tried to take a photograph of him the day before, purportedly for his deportation, likely did so in retaliation for a second lawsuit filed on Tendo’s behalf on August 18.
The suit is brought under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). It asks that the court issue an injunction barring ICE officials and members of the agency’s Health Service Corps from removing Tendo from the court’s jurisdiction during the course of litigation. His attorney has requested a jury trial. Listed as defendants are Jose Garcia Longoria, Jr., Officer in Charge, ICE, Port Isabel Service Processing Center; Maribel Cantu, M.D., Acting Clinical Director, Port Isabel Detention Center, ICE Health Services Corps; and Jane Doe/John Doe Deportation Officers, ICE and/or clinical employees of ICE Health Service Corps.
Tendo is also requesting from the court an injunction enjoining the defendants from destroying any records or communications pertaining to Tendo, “his health and medical treatment, decisions made as to his health or detention, be they paper, electronic, recorded, or otherwise, as well as recordings, digital, film or other, from the security cameras in the dorms for the past ten months, in anticipation of discovery”.
A statement of facts included in the filing details a series of complaints documented throughout Tendo’s detention. His attorney alleges that officials overseeing the removal process, as well as those responsible for Tendo’s medical care and well-being, have routinely misrepresented the severity of his condition, the level of care he has been provided, and the agency’s adherence to its own COVID-19 policies:
On Friday, Tendo reported that his dormitory has been placed under quarantine after a detainee living three beds away from him tested positive for COVID-19. ICE’s latest report lists only one detainee with an active positive case at PIDC. Two days prior, the agency’s COVID-19 guidance listed 20 detainees with active positive cases. Tendo said, “They continue putting more dorms under quarantine…I don’t know what will happen to me if I get it again…”
According to Tendo, the dorms are crowded, making social distancing “hard, if not impossible.” Both detainees and attorneys have reported that the facility’s population is down to approximately 300 detainees, but according to the pastor, there are still more than 50 people in his dorm despite open housing units at the facility. Tendo described the space as having two urinals, four open toilet bowls, five sinks and showers, and a limited supply of soap. Detainees who have the funds can purchase additional soap from the commissary.
. . .
Update August 20, 2020: 44 members of the United States Congress have signed onto a letter urging Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf to immediately release and halt the deportation of Pastor Steven Tendo, a 35-year old man from Uganda who has been detained in Los Fresnos for over a year and a half.
Tendo is detained at the Port Isabel Detention Center, where a COVID outbreak has already been documented inside the facility. His asylum case was denied and is pending a decision from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and a motion to reopen at the Board of Immigration Appeals.
The young pastor has been repeatedly denied parole by immigration officials over the course of his 19-month detention despite the severity of his condition and a mandate requiring ICE to consider detainees at risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19 for discretionary release.
Tendo has sponsors lined up and does not pose a threat to the community, and according to documents submitted in court will be killed upon his arrival to Uganda, the representatives stated.
The letter, dated Tuesday, was signed by representatives including Reps. Filemon Vela, Nydia M. Velázquez, Joaquin Castro, Rashida Tlaib, Lloyd Doggett, Vicente Gonzalez, Ro Khanna, Ayanna Pressley, James McGovern, and Joe Kennedy.
Representatives cited “ample evidence” supporting Tendo’s asylum claim and asked ICE to immediately halt Tendo’s deportation, as well as to release the pastor on medical parole.
The request clearly states that ICE would be in violation of both U.S. and international law if Tendo were to be deported.They wrote, “Removing Pastor Steven under these circumstances would constitute a breach of U.S. obligations under both U.S. domestic asylum law as well as the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol and the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment.
Tendo was first arrested and tortured in 2012 for his human rights and voting rights work with ELOI Ministries, a Christian ministry and advocacy group he founded in Uganda.
His diabetes has worsened at PIDC due to improper diet and medical treatment. He is blind in one eye as a result and is losing vision in the other. The pastor suffers from weakness, recurring boils caused by his weakened immune system, and has a dangerously low blood cell count. Tendo recently began experiencing severe pain in his kidneys, for which he said staff was treating him with ibuprofen.
Tendo’s low white blood cell count was confirmed by medical staff at the facility through a blood test, which he said indicated he had contracted and recovered from COVID-19. He reported that the results almost prompted doctors to admit him to a hospital and that he likely won’t survive another infection.
ICE’s latest COVID-19 statistics indicate 133 total documented cases inside the facility. The agency listed only one of those detainees as under medical isolation or monitoring.
The latest report from Cameron County Public Health, published on Wednesday, stated that 12 employees and 85 detainees have tested positive. County officials have declined to answer requests for information regarding the case number discrepancies, how the cases are being monitored and reported, and who is reporting the cases.
ICE does not report positive cases among its contracted facility staff. At PIDC, an Alaska Native Corporation called Ahtna, Inc. holds the contract for detention staff, while another named Chenega Facilities Management has said it employs maintenance staff at the facility.
At the El Valley Detention Facility in Raymondville, ICE reported 29 confirmed cases and 28 detainees under isolation or monitoring.
Tendo reported on Thursday afternoon that two ICE officials allegedly sent by his deportation officer entered his dormitory, ordered him to stand against the wall, and tried to take a new photograph of him for his deportation. “I refused and they started threatening me that we are going to prosecute you and next time we are coming with a video recording to show the judge that you do not want to comply with USA government,” he wrote.
“They called him (my DO) today on his extension when I was watching and told him I had refused to take photo meaning he was in office but never wanted to see me yet when they come to call me, they tell me that your deportation officer wants to talk to you. I am so worried right now which worsens my medical condition and scared at the same time.”
Tendo said his deportation officer appears to be avoiding him since they last had a discussion about the severity of his medical condition. The officer visited Tendo in his dorm only after he threatened to initiate a hunger strike in spite of his weak immune system.
In recent weeks, there have been some small but positive developments in Tendo’s situation. He said dorm mates who have gotten to know the severity of his pain are supporting him where necessary. He spoke of a captain at the facility who is trying to get him proper medical attention. The captain is not, however, able to make decisions about Tendo’s case. “She commanded all guards lately to understand my problems and handle me humanly, sent an email to ICE requesting them to meet me and hear my ordeals and pain,” he said.
Doctors at PIDC over the weekend told Tendo that the hospital where he was supposed to have eye surgery does not accept patients from detention centers and nursing homes at the moment, but if that he is released, he can get operated on as soon as possible. According to Tendo, the two doctors wondered why he has not been released yet. “They have submitted all records of my illnesses to [Dr. Maribel Cantu – Clinical Director] for recommendations to be released, but in vain. Why is my situation being handled with a lot of politics even when its life threatening, they both did not know,” he said.
Tendo reported that officers would not provide him with sunglasses for mandatory recreation time under the scorching South Texas sun. On Thursday, he was summoned to medical as matter of urgency and one of the doctors showed him a letter from Retina Valley Hospital, which had declined to operate on his eye due to COVID-19. Fortunately, the hospital staff contacted another facility which accepted Tendo as a patient. He has an upcoming appointment for a possible surgery or review but stated that he doesn’t trust ICE after months of detention.
One of the doctors confirmed that Tendo has lost a lot of weight and ordered for a double portion of food at meal times. The food is still not suitable for diabetes and is not kosher, an alternative suggestion that Tendo gave the agency months ago to help manage his condition. A lot of the food detainees are served is sweet, he said.
Tendo’s doctors ordered blood work and more tests after diagnosing him with anemia. Doctors told the pastor that if his eyes can’t be operated on due to complications, officials would revisit the idea of transferring him to another detention center.
. . .
Update August 18, 2020: ICE’s latest report documented 133 positive COVID-19 cases to date among detainees at the Port Isabel Detention Center. 20 of those detainees were under isolation or monitoring. The agency reported 29 detainee cases at the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville, with 28 detainees under isolation or monitoring.
Numbers provided by Cameron County Public Health in daily case total reports suggest discrepancies in reporting. In a report published by the department on Monday evening, officials indicated that 85 detainees and 12 employees have tested positive at PIDC.
ICE doesn’t publish cases confirmed among its contracted detention facility staff. At PIDC, those staff are employed by Ahtna, Inc., an Alaska Native Corporation, while another of those corporations called Chenega Facilities Management hires maintenance staff at the facility, according to Chenega’s general manager Scott Wallace. ICE confirmed that private, for-profit prison management company Management and Training Corporation (MTC) hold the contract for the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville.
. . .
Update August 17, 2020: ICE’s latest report showed 133 total positive cases recorded among detainees at the Port Isabel Detention Center. 20 of those detainees were under isolation or monitoring. At the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville, the agency reported 27 detainee cases. 26 of those individuals were under isolation or monitoring.
. . .
Update August 11, 2020: ICE on Monday reported a total of 131 positive COVID-19 cases documented among detainees at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas. 18 of those detainees were under isolation or monitoring. At the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville, the agency reported 24 positive detainee cases, with 23 of those detainees under isolation or monitoring.
Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley urged the public to sign onto a letter drafted by U.S. Rep. James McGovern asking for the immediate release of Pastor Steven Tendo, a 35-year-old, severely diabetic asylum seeker from Uganda who has been in ICE custody without adequate medical treatment since December 2018. The document asks for Tendo’s immediate release on medical parole and safety from deportation while his case is pending, according to the coalition. Organizers specified that there is only a week for advocates to sign onto the letter. Guidance on how to do so is available here.
Tendo last week said he is now worried about losing his kidneys, which he attributes to too much medication. This is in addition to ongoing symptoms caused by improper treatment of his diabetes, for which he has been refused a suitable diet and has not been properly medicated. Steven is currently blind in one eye and is losing vision in the other. The condition is caused by cataracts formed over the course of his detention.
Last week, Tendo reported that he initiated a hunger strike after he was unable to meet with his detention officer Carlos Rodriguez and his supervisor regarding his conditions. Tendo said that soap and cleaning supplies inside dormitories are still limited. The short strike resulted in a visit, during which officials assured him that they would approach his physician, Dr. Maribel Cantu, regarding his condition and his low white blood cell count, he said. According to the pastor, medical staff confirmed that he already had COVID-19, leaving his immune system extremely vulnerable to infection.
Tendo reported sharp pains in his stomach which medical staff allegedly refused to take action on, prompting him to abstain from taking his medication for several days. Three days later, Tendo received a blood test. Cantu allegedly wanted to transfer him to another detention center, which he did not accept.
According to Tendo, transfers of detainees between dorms and between facilities are still taking place despite a renewed spike in cases at PIDC and a growing outbreak at El Valle.
A renewed motion for a stay of removal filed on behalf of Tendo at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit filed in April (seeking a stay of a Dec. 12, 2019 order from the Board of Immigration Appeals mandating his removal to Uganda) alleged that his counsel never received formal response from DHS regarding an initial application for a stay of removal filed with DHS this January. According to the document, Tendo was informed by his detention officer that the petition was denied.
Tendo also has a motion to reopen and request for a stay of removal pending with the BIA, though his attorney Lisa Brodyaga noted in April that the stay was requested only until his motion to reopen was adjudicated. “It apparently has not been adjudicated, but if it were to be denied, it would be virtually impossible to file a petition for review, and a motion for a stay to this Court, even on an emergency basis, before DHS could execute his removal,” the document stated.
Brodyaga argued that Tendo’s Opening Brief demonstrated, “almost conclusively” that both the immigration judge who heard Tendo’s asylum case and the BIA erred in not finding him to be credible. “The record shows that the IJ was in contact with some outside source, presumably the U.S. Consulate, that seeks Mr. Tendo’s removal because the Ugandan government feels threatened by his organization’s program to educate the youth about their rights, and encourage them to vote, which it considers a form of ‘terrorism’,” wrote his attorney.
The pending motion to reopen asserts that “two weeks after the BIA dismissed his appeal, Ugandan security forces raided his [redacted]’s home, who had heard that he had been returned, and thought that she was hiding him. They beat her brutally, leaving her so badly injured she could not even use her hand to sign her declaration. The motion is accompanied by high quality color photos of her injuries and smashed cell phone, a declaration from the clinic where she was treated and a photo of the front of that clinic, his [redacted]’s declaration and ID, and a declaration and ID by a corrections officer with the Uganda government, who had previously submitted other crucial evidence. The declaration filed with the motion to reopen recounts a chance meeting with a former classmate, who now works as an immigration officer at the Ugandan airport. He explained that on arrival, deportees are turned over to the security forces. Given Mr. Tendo’s history, and the attack on his [redacted], she opined that he would not survive the encounter.”
Further, Tendo’s attorney argued that in addition to procedural errors committed by the BIA, “incontestable” evidence of past torture and subsequent events show that the negative finding of credibility was incorrect. “Absent a stay of removal from this court, or an order from the BIA, granting his motion to reopen, it is clear that DHS intends to remove Mr. Tendo as soon as possible. They now have a travel document, from the Ugandan government. And if the BIA were to deny his motion to reopen, there would not be time to file a petition for review, and motion for a stay to this court, before removal was executed,” the motion stated.
This is Steven’s initial asylum claim as cited in the motion:
“My name is Steven Tendo, from Uganda, Muganda by tribe, born on November 24, 1984. I am currently married but separated. I have a Bachelors Degree of Arts with Education, Diploma in Theology and Biblical ministry and certificates in Guidance and Counseling, Leadership, Sales and Marketing among others. Upon graduating from college I began working as a high school teacher. I realized that I needed to teach and educate the people in the communities. I felt the need and urgency so I decided to establish my own non-profit organization. I became an ordained Pentecostal Pastor and the Founder, President, and Executive Director of Eternal Life Organization International Ministries (ELOI Ministries), a Christian based civil society non-profit organization. ELOI Ministries started as a community level organization in 2007 but transitioned to a national level organization in 2009. ELOI Ministries is widely influential in the Republic of Uganda concentrating on four major objectives; Education, Health, Justice ad Community reintegration.
At the beginning, our government saw our organization as a potential partner because of the amazing work we had been doing, for instance, educating people about health and the importance of personal hygiene. Then we began concentrating our focus on the Justice objective. We concentrated on educating and sensitizing the people of their human rights, rule of law and not counted. They were not counting them in places that they knew the opposition party was dominant. An even greater chaos was created. Many people were arrested, beaten and even killed during this time. Unfortunately, in 2016, Yoweri Muferuni Kaguta became the President of Uganda once again. A lot of people began protesting because they didn’t want him to continue to be president. We continued praying for our country and advised the youths not to use violence, to remain calm and continue to show their discontentment in a peaceful manner.
Also in 2016, the government instructed one of its judicial officers to falsify a warrant of arrest against me. He wrote to the US Embassy in Kampala and also to the Ministry of Internal Affairs accusing me of things that I did not commit.
In 2017, after dealing with the ongoing investigation, I was acquitted from all the charges because they didn’t have proof against me. I had fought against the corrupted Judicial System on the false accusations from 2014 to 2017. Nevertheless, after winning my case, I was arrested agains without an explanation. I was seated and tortured once more. It was something that I could not escape. I tried hiding in a village and that is when I found out that the government had killed my uncle Felix Kaweesi. My uncle was a senior police officer at the rank of Director and Assistant Inspector General (AIG). I was informed by some people who were at the scene that they killed him because the government thought he was behind my activities. They also thought that he would give me inside in formation about the government. I know the government killed him because he was killed with a firearm and in Uganda, the government are the only individuals who have firearms. Killings across the country continued. The government killed women, children, and people who were supporters of the opposition parties.
Around February 2018, I was arrested and severely beaten. I was wrongfully detained for approximately two weeks. I went into hiding once more because random killings had increased. I had also heard from sympathizers in the same system that the government was looking for me again to kill me.
Around March 2018, things worsened for my country. The President had lifted the presidential age limit around Dec’ 17. This meant that the president could be president for as long as he lived. He established that the precedent could now become president as young as 18 years old and without no specific age to retire. This made the hopes that I had for my country fade away. I had endured so much because I truly believed that the Ugandan people could bring great change. I was very passionate about the work that I did and I wanted to continue to educate the people in order for the country to prosper.
During the bi-elections, on one of their rallies in Bugiri, my brother Livingstone was beaten and shot to death by the government. They killed my brother because they wanted him to turn me in to the authorities. When I heard about this horrible news I decided that I needed to leave the country. I left Uganda in September 2018. I am extremely afraid to return to my country because I know that if I return, the Government will find me and kill me.”
One of three attorneys representing Steven, Cathy Potter, reported in June that ICE’s attorney submitted 12 pages of a 14-page document to a federal judge in Brownsville suggesting that Tendo had used false travel documents to flee Uganda. U.S. District Judge Rolando Olvera, Jr. denied a motion to reconsider in Tendo’s federal habeas case in June. The remaining two pages of the document included the findings of an investigation which concluded that he did not flee using false documents, Potter stated.
Tendo’s attorney argued in the April motion to stay his removal that the record showed conclusively that Tendo was kidnapped at least twice by Ugandan security forces and that the “reasons given by the IJ for doubting his credibility do not withstand scrutiny. Only in one area the the IJ claim to have found a relevant inconsistency in his testimony.”
One claim in which the immigration judge claimed to have found a relevant inconsistency in testimony was in a letter dated March 4, 2018, in which the officer in charge of the Remand Prison Kampala stated that Tendo “was first admitted to this prison unit on 6 June, 2012, as remand prisoner from Nakawa Chief Magistrate’s Court Kampala”.
Additional testimony by Steven claimed that he was arrested and tortured in June 2012. The judge found that the description stood in “sharp contrast” to Tendo’s own description, where he said he was kept at a “safe house” without seeing a judge or being charged with any offense. Tendo’s attorneys rejected that finding, citing testimony that Tendo was picked up the second week of April 2012 and was released at the end of July that same year. His testimony stated, “They took me to a place, …on … one of the hills in Kampala where there are poacher chambers called safe house, one of them, and on top of the hill, there is the army barracks,…So we are the, it’s in the middle of the hill is where I was tortured from. So that entire area is occupied by people who work in the security forces.”
The letter from the Ugandan official stated, “The above-mentioned person was first admitted to this prison unit on 6 June 2012, as remand prisoner number RPK 782/12 from Nakawa Chief Magistrate’s Court, Kampala. On admission, he underwent a routine health check and it was observed that he had torture marks on different parts of his body including the head, chest, back, legs, buttocks, genitals and hands. He was also missing two fingers from his left hand. This was very disturbing and it attracted an immediate investigation. This office established that Mr. Tendo Steven was among several torture victims at the hands of Uganda security forces. Fortunately, he survived. As a requirement of the Law, Uganda Prisons Service treated his wounds. However, he has been in and out of this prison on charges related to the politics of Uganda. We later established from our medical team that he acquired Diabetes Type Two (2), which the medical team has been managing.”
His attorney wrote, “This is consistent with Mr. Tendo’s testimony. After two months with the security forces (in June, 2012), he was taken to a Magistrate, and then to the prison, ROA.”
This was consistent with Steven’s testimony. He stated, “In 2012, when I was beaten and tortured, I was taken, not even in … the courtroom like this, but I was taken to a chamber of a magistrate called Kabugo (phonetic sp.). And there was nothing like a charge that was read to me, and that has always been done to people that have been persecuted by the government. And I was dumped in the prison without any charge. And you cannot be taken to a prison without an order of a magistrate or a judge, so they had to get a letter that push me to prison from a magistrate, and that is how I ended up in Luzira.”
Brodyaga argued that other reasons for which the immigration judge found him not credible were cross-cultural assumption that ignore Tendo’s explanations. The judge wrote, “In the midst of the persecution and torture that respondent described in his testimony, nearly all of which predated some or all of these voluntary returns to Uganda, it is very difficult to accept respondent’s version of events regarding claimed persecution and torture.”
Tendo said in his explanation of why he did not seek asylum in the U.S., “I’ve always had hope in my country, counsel, and I knew that there is going to be an end to this all. I though that the president wouldn’t come back in 2016, but he apparently came back. And I didn’t expect things to go worsening every other new day. And besides that, it is a country that I am, I am attached to, where my family is, where my everything is. I never thought of going anywhere and start almost afresh.”
Tendo also didn’t think he could find safety in an Arab country “given their close ties to the president of Uganda and the amount of oil they buy there,” the petition stated.
According to the document, the immigration judge found that some Ugandan documents listed Tendo’s birth year as 1985 instead of 1984, which Tendo’s attorney argued is irrelevant to his asylum claim. “That in fact, he was born in 1984 is shown by his [redacted]’s ID, showing her birthdate as November 24, 1984. Nor could he have obtained any plausible benefit by falsifying those records,” the petition stated.
Additional issues raised by the judge included recurring errors made by the travel agency that prepared Tendo’s visa applications and that Tendo failed to produce the record of his visit to a private doctor following his 2012 torture. As Tendo explained, “Your Honor, we did not have knowledge about how to access the system and then all these nitty-gritty, how to produce the, a form for payment. I did not know, I did not know how to do that. I had never applied before. And because this is the company that I always used to travel, Your Honor, I didn’t see the reason as to why I would hustle to do that when they can do it. I did find it appropriate. It’s now that I’m realizing that it was maybe a problem or a mistake, but I didn’t find it a problem them doing it for me.”
Regarding the lack of evidence of the visit proving he was tortured by the Black Mambas in 2012, the judge found given that Tendo “has been represented by counsel throughout these proceedings and represented by counsel in Uganda for years and presented a voluminous amount of other purportedly corroborative evidence from Uganda. No reasonable explanation exists why respondent could not have obtained and submitted copies of contemporaneous medical records from his claimed 2012 torture.”
In response, Tendo’s attorney wrote, “It is hard enough to recreate lost medical records of U.S. doctors. This is Uganda. Finding those records to be reasonable available is another cross-cultural assumption. Further, the IJ ignored the evidence that was in the record, including from the prison where he was sent in June 2012, after two months with the security forces, noting the loss of his fingers and other evidence of torture, and the documentation from the prison hospital of the beating he received during his 2016 arrest. It is probably not coincidental that the IJ demanded medical records from after Mr. Tendo was released from prison, in July 2012, notwithstanding that the ‘letter dated March 4, 2018 from the officer in charge of the Remand Prison Kampala’ stated that when Mr. Tendo was turned over to the prisons,” he was tortured.
The motion stated that the official was the subject of an off-the-record conversation with the immigration judge with an “anonymous person” who told the judge that she had left the post a week after writing the letter. “That the IJ was told something by the anonymous source to make him out [redacted]’s letter is the only plausible explanation for his demand that Mr. Tendo produce the (lost) records of the private doctor he visited after he was released, in late July, 2012,” wrote Brodyaga.
Tendo has committed no criminal offenses in either the United States or in Uganda. “The harm to the U.S. is primarily the cost of detaining him during these proceedings. By contrast, he has been previously tortured by the Uganda government, which cut off two of his fingers, killed several relatives, and recently, brutally attacked his [redacted] and will almost certainly kill him if he is removed,” his attorney concluded.
The State Department’s 2019 Uganda Human Rights Report is available here.
In a physician’s letter dated August 7, 2020, sent to Tendo’s attorney Cathy Potter, Dr. Laszlo Madaras, a hospitalist who works with HIV and diabetic patients and the Chief Medical Officer for Migrant Clinicians Network, stated that Steven’s risk of death has multiplied “at least ten-fold” due to the presence of COVID-19 in the facility where he lives.
The letter is viewable in full below:
. . .
Update August 5, 2020: ICE reported 22 positive COVID-19 cases among detainees at the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville. 21 of those detainees were under isolation or monitoring. At the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, the agency reported 130 positive detainee cases. 23 of those detainees were under isolation or monitoring.
Update August 4, 2020: ICE reported 130 positive COVID-19 cases among detainees inside the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas. 25 of those detainees were under isolation or monitoring. At the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville, ICE reported 16 total positive detainee cases. 15 of those detainees were under isolation or monitoring.
Steven, a 35-year-old pastor from Uganda, is still in ICE detention. According to Steven, his health is worsening, and in addition to inadequate treatment for his diabetes causing him to lose his vision in one eye, he is now at risk of losing his kidneys. The pastor reported that the detainee population at the facility is likely less than 300 and that the number of guards outweighs those detained at the facility.
Over the weekend, Steven spoke of a second wave of COVID-19 that has allegedly placed at least two dormitories under quarantine.
The latest report from Witness at the Border documenting ICE Air’s chartered deportation flights indicated that deportations and transfers between facilities have remained steady despite the risk posed by the virus. “In the midst of the global pandemic, ICE Air continues to initiate and facilitate the seeding, spreading, and exporting of COVID within the U.S. we of 200 detention centers and to other countries through a total of 2,808 likely ICE Air flights, including 1,760 domestic flights, and 536 deportation flights to 15 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean,” wrote Witness’s flight tracking team.
Organizers since March have documented deportation flights contracted with the airline broker Classic Air Charters. Those flights are then subcontracted to World Atlantic (Caribbean Sun) and Swift Air (iAero Airways). “July deportation flights of 82 were at the highest level since when March deportation flights were 91. July was over the prior 3-month average of 59 by 40%. There were two more flight days in July, but that only accounts for about 10 percentage points of the increase,” the report stated.
“In addition to the concern over spreading COVID, we are perplexed by the relative inelasticity of the change in ICE Air flight volume with the change in the level of the detainee population. The detainee population is down 44% from the average for January/February to July, as a result of the tourniquet at the border and continuing deportations. However, during that same time, total likely ICE Air flights are down only 10%, with deportations down 12% and interestingly, domestic flights down only 9%.”
. . .
Update July 30, 2020: ICE’s latest positive COVID-19 case count among detainees at the Port Isabel Detention Center, last updated on Wednesday, indicated 129 total cases. 28 detainees were under isolation or monitoring. At the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville, ICE reported 11 positive cases and 11 detainees under isolation or monitoring.
. . .
Update July 28, 2020: ICE reported 128 total positive COVID-19 cases among detainees at PIDC. 30 of those detainees were under isolation or monitoring.
. . .
Update July 27, 2020: According to the latest update from ICE, 126 detainees inside the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas have tested positive for COVID-19. 31 of those detainees were under isolation or monitoring. At the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville, Texas, eight detainees tested positive and were under isolation or monitoring.
. . .
Update July 24, 2020: 120 total detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 inside PIDC, according to the latest update from ICE. 26 of those detainees were under isolation or monitoring.
ICE responded to inquiries regarding detainees with serious symptoms, as well as rumors that detainees would be transferred from the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville to PIDC, reporting no detainees inside the facility on oxygen and no merit to the transfer rumors.
. . .
Update July 22, 2020: ICE confirmed that 101 detainees inside PIDC have tested positive for COVID-19. According to the agency, 9 of those individuals were under isolation or monitoring.
Pastor Steven reported from detention on Wednesday that tests confirmed he likely already recovered from COVID-19, reducing his white blood cell count to dangerously low levels. He explained, “The doctors say I have no immunity at all, so I can’t fight any simple infection, which puts me at risk of losing my life with any infection or disease.”
Steven expressed fear of a second wave of the virus entering the facility. A petition for review of his asylum case is pending at the Board of Immigration Appeals.
. . .
Just under 100 detainees inside the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas have tested positive for COVID-19. The latest numbers published by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, updated on Sunday, showed 97 detainees with positive results but only 12 detainees under isolation or monitoring.
ICE has not reported any confirmed employee cases at either PIDC or the El Valle Detention facility in Raymondville, where a total of four detainees have tested positive and are currently under isolation or monitoring. Numbers released by Cameron County Public Health on Monday indicated that at PIDC, only 78 detainees had tested positive. ICE directed inquiries regarding the discrepancy to Cameron County Public Health. A spokesperson for the county suggested the number may be lower due to the reporting channels lagging behind, as the county is facing a spike in cases, but did not confirm who was reporting the numbers to county officials. Cameron County Public Health has not responded to multiple inquiries requesting to speak with officials about how the totals are collected and reported from PIDC.
The county’s latest report stated that 12 employees at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center had tested positive for the virus. ICE does not count or report positive cases among its contract detention facility staff, suggesting that employees working at the facility through a subsidiary of Ahtna, Inc., an Alaska Native Regional Corporation and one of at least two private companies tasked with operating the facility, have tested positive. Ahtna did not respond to an inquiry regarding the reported positives at PIDC. The company confirmed late last month that an employee who worked at the facility passed away on June 25, but declined to confirm that the case was COVID-19 related. A post by a current San Benito, Texas city commissioner suggested that the employee’s death had been included in the Cameron County COVID-19 report that week. Another firm, Chenega Facilities Management, LLC said on June 29 that all of its staff at PIDC are maintenance personnel. Asked this week whether any employees have tested positive, the company’s general manager Scott Wallace confirmed that no Chenega employees had tested positive. Management and Training Corporation, which ICE confirmed holds the contract for El Valle, did not respond to an inquiry requesting information on whether any detention facility staff have tested positive.
As reported by the McAllen Monitor last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began investigating the Ahtna employee’s death on June 26. An unofficial report confirming the investigation is available on OSHA’s website. The investigation type is listed as FAT/CAT, which stands for Fatality/Catastrophe, and under the “Safety/Health” category lists the incident as “Health”. The “Related Activity” category is marked “Accident”.
On Monday, the husband of a detainee at El Valle who wished to remain anonymous reported that his wife and others had allegedly initiated a hunger strike. Asked to confirm, ICE stated there was no ongoing hunger strike at El Valle. “They just started it today. They moved some ladies that were at [El Valle] a couple weeks with the ones that have been there for months, and one of the [women] they just moved there tested positive,” said the man.
Advocates last week were trying to determine whether mass testing had been implemented at PIDC in response to the outbreak. Norma Herrera of RGV Equal Voice Network said on Thursday that two dorms of detainees indicated that staff was administering tests. Another detainee in a second dorm told Herrera his area still had not been tested.
Advocates this week picked up a young man from Kenya who was released from the facility on bond. “He confirmed that there’s lots of testing going on at PIDC and told me that he asked to be tested two weeks ago because there were so many sick people in his dorm,” wrote one of the advocates. “He came out negative, then tested again two days ago, when he knew he was going to be released. He said no one wants to go to medical because of so many sick people there and that he has seen people in his dorm really, really sick, on oxygen.”
Steven, a 35-year-old Ugandan pastor fighting worsening diabetes, is still in detention at PIDC and is under a final order of removal despite a strong asylum case on appeal and extreme risk of serious illness or death if he becomes infected with COVID-19. He confirmed last week that ICE began testing at PIDC. “One dorm or housing unit is already done. We are waiting for the remaining three,” said Steven.
There are four pods and sixteen dormitories inside PIDC, according to advocates who prior to the pandemic made welfare visits to the facility and are in regular contact with detainees. Steven’s petition for review at the Fifth Circuit is pending. There is also a motion to reopen at the BIA and motion for stay, and BIA has ruled on neither one. According ICE has filed a motion to dismiss Tendo’s federal habeas case, for which one of his attorneys is working on a response. He is pending removal to Uganda, where an official in touch with his team of three attorneys confirmed that he’ll be kidnapped and murdered before he makes it out of the airport in his home country.
Steven survived multiple torture sessions at the hands of Ugandan officials for participating in activism supporting political prisoners, as well as his involvement in voting rights advocacy. According to Steven’s attorneys, his case for asylum was denied by the same immigration judge that granted one of his supporters asylum. Steven presented legally a U.S. port of entry in December 2018 and has been detained inside PIDC since. Prior to his detention, he was able to control his diabetes through proper diet, medication, and exercise, all of which have been denied to him while at PIDC, according to Steven, his attorneys, and federal court documents. Steven’s initial habeas petition was denied by U.S. District Judge Rolando Olvera, Jr. in early June based on a document ICE’s counsel allegedly submitted only partially, making it appear Steven had used false documents to leave Uganda. Steven’s attorney Cathy Potter said the missing 12 pages of the investigation initiated by the Department of State showed that a magistrate judge in Uganda verified that the pastor had fled using valid documents.
In late June, Steven said in a phone call that detainees in his dormitory had been without soap for four days. They were provided with packets of shampoo, said Steven. He spoke of each dormitory having only four to five toilets, eight sinks, and not enough showers. Staff comes at 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. with cleaning supplies each day, meaning that the toilet bowls are sitting open in a dormitory packed with detainees for the majority of the day. “It’s really, really traumatizing,” he said of his prolonged detention.
Asked what ICE tells detainees when they voice concerns, Tendo said, “They threaten. Every time they threaten —if you do anything stupid we will deport you to the respective county.”
He spoke of discrimination against detainees from African countries, a point that has also been made by local advocates who have observed through welfare visits that those detainees often spend years in detention after seeking asylum legally. As for Steven’s asylum case, he said the immigration judge didn’t give him “any sound reason” as to why the case was denied. “I think that there are a lot of anxieties when it comes to immigrants lately. Immigrants are dying in detention centers. When we try to raise our voices, they retaliate with force and raids and punishment and add more pain than what we are already experiencing. These people in Brownsville should know that yes, we are next to them, but there is a lot of pain in ICE detention. We live in suffocation. There is a lot happening inside this prison that has been hidden from the public or has been downplayed by the department. The situation is worse. There’s a lot of abuses of human rights. Some of them are physical tortures where we try to see a doctor, and they tell you you can visit in two or three months — it’s because of your skin color or where you are coming from,” he said.
On Wednesday, Steven said that his dorm had been tested and would be receiving results on Monday. As guards explained to him, the detainees would be moved to new areas after results came in. Advocates heard from other detainees that those who test positive would stay at Port Isabel, while detainees that test negative would be transferred to another facility. This is unconfirmed. Asked what happens when detainees test positive, Steven answered, “Some of them are moved from the dorms and put in the infirmary or isolated. Then, after 14 days of quarantine, they take you back to another dorm where people who have recovered are being checked.”
On July 8, advocates heard from a detainee who called crying from Alexandria, Louisiana — the site of a large ICE staging facility — after he had allegedly been tested at PIDC without being given a reason. The detainee said he was transported to the new facility after. “That’s sort of known as the last stop before deportation,” said the advocate.
Last week, Steven suggested the likely possibility of much higher case numbers than what ICE is confirming on its website. “There are people I know who have been under quarantine for the month of June,” he said, addressing rumors that some detainees’ symptoms were so severe they had been given oxygen. Those reports are unconfirmed. Asked to confirm detainee testing on July 10, ICE responded, “Detainees are being tested for COVID-19 in line with CDC guidance. In some cases, medical staff at ICE detention facilities are collecting specimens from ICE detainees for processing at a commercial or public health lab. In other cases, including when a detainee requires a higher level of care, they are sent to a local hospital and may be tested at the discretion of the treating provider at the hospital.”
ICE was also asked to confirm reports of seriously ill detainees, responding, “On July 4, a detainee housed at the Port Isabel Detention Center was taken to a local hospital after he was experiencing respiratory issues. As is standard procedure, the detainee has been tested for COVID-19 and those results are pending. Consistent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) protocol, ICE makes referrals to community-based medical providers, as appropriate.”
On Monday, ICE confirmed that two detainees at PIDC had been hospitalized since the outbreak began. “To date, only two detainees from the Port Isabel Detention Center (PIDC) have been hospitalized due to COVID-19,” the agency wrote.
In the meantime, advocates have been able to facilitate the release of several detainees with the help of RAICES and other local organizing coalitions. Advocates in the first week of July expressed concern over a detainee who is a cancer patient who tested positive. “They’ve apparently put him in isolation — it doesn’t sound like he’s with other people at all,” wrote the advocate who spoke with the man.
On July 5, the detainee wrote to advocates, “Viera mire que hoy me trajeron unas exámenes y me salieron positivos al corona virus Viera que lo mal que me ciento ya me pasaron a otro cuarto bien pequeño y es de vidrio no se puede mover uno viera lo mal que me ciento” (“Today they brought me some tests and I tested positive for the coronavirus. I have already been transferred to another very small room, it is made of glass, you cannot move.”)
The man told advocates the same day, “Viera me duele todo me siento bien mal” (“Everything hurts, I feel bad.”)
According to those in touch with the man, he presented at the border last fall with his pregnant wife. She crossed and had her baby in the United States, but officials detained the man at PIDC. Later, he learned he had kidney cancer. He has never met his baby. On July 6, the detainee wrote back, offering prayers to the advocate. “Buenos días esperó que este bien que mi Dios la aparte de todo este sufrimiento viera lo feo que es este virus paso con mucho dolor dé cabeza y cuerpo le oro mucho a mi Señor por usted y su familia para que los cuidé,” he said.
Pastor Steven last week said many of the guards still working at the facility have expressed some solidarity with the detainees, as they’re forced to report to a facility in which there are dozens of confirmed cases. “They feel the pain that we are feeling and most of them feel they are being discriminated against, that they aren’t being valued,” he said. “Now, us detainees are deathly depressed. It’s really painful. The people in my situation are unhappy. The morale is really, really low today.”
Steven said he has been able to exercise more, which he thinks will help get his diabetes back under control. Although there is always real fear of retaliation, he remains determined to speak about his situation. “I cannot cower and hide in my blanket, because life is much more important than anything else. I am fighting for my life and I’m not trying to do anything wrong. I’m speaking from what I know and what I have heard from others. I’ve been doing much more exercising to fight my depression, fight this condition. It’s about balance,” he said.
According to Steven, soap is provided periodically. As of last week, detainees had masks, but most had been washing and reusing masks for the past month. “I’d like people to know that it’s the most threatening and the most scary right now. Why won’t we be released? Why do they incarcerate us indefinitely?” asked Steven.
Norma Herrera confirmed on Thursday that detainees have told her soap is limited. She explained, “They have these small packets that they have to make last the whole day. That includes bathing, hand washing, and cleaning their own masks. They’re still saying it’s not enough soap to last for all of those needs,” she said. Herrera added that the masks detainees are currently given must be washed daily.
The advocate heard from an employee who works in PIDC’s kitchen, who two weeks ago was preparing 300 plates at mealtime, indicating an even lower detainee population from the 500 to 600 reported last month. As for whether the testing at the facility is universal, reports remain unconfirmed. “I don’t know if the testing that’s going on is universal testing,” she said. “I can think of at least once case where a person detained said no on in his room has been tested.”
Protocol at PIDC appears to be evolving. Attorney Carlos Moctezuma Garcia on Friday said he visited a client at PIDC the week before and saw all guards wearing masks. This stood in contrast to several months back, when it appeared the policy was not being enforced, he explained. “My client was wearing the mask. After that, I had a final hearing for one of my clients. The judge was not present in the courtroom; I had to see them over television. The interpreter was with the judge and the prosecutor was over the phone. My client wasn’t seated at the table next to me, but she was seated at a bench close to me, and she was not six feet away from me. She was coming from El Valle. There were also a couple of guards and they were both wearing masks,” he said.
Though the immigration court has facilitated remote telephone access for attorneys, remote video is not available, which Garcia said made him feel obligated to attend the hearing in person despite the risk. “I didn’t feel safe. I felt that the guards were doing everything that they could do, but I didn’t feel safe being there. I felt uncomfortable, but I felt I had to be there for my client, because that’s where I was going to best represent her. She’s in the detention center as well,” he said. “I don’t know if either I’m too close to her that she might get sick from me or that I might get sick from her, because we definitely were not six feet apart. It’s an emotional time. They’re in a hearing over whether a person is going to stay detained, be deported, or be released. It’s difficult for any human being to sit there and either not cry or not take off their mask if they’re going to sneeze — anything like that. It’s difficult and it puts people at risk.”
Garcia raised concern that at PIDC, he is unable to speak with his clients over the phone for adequate periods of time. He said, “Another thing that’s concerning is that at certain detention centers, we have access to clients over the phone. At El Valle, I can do a visitation with one of my clients over the phone. I just submit the visitation sheet and instead of having to go visit my client in person, I can talk to them. I can do this once a day if I need to. But, at PIDC, if I try to do that, all they can do is give my client a message. They will not set up a phone or a system for them to contact me. And if my client does contact me, they have to pay for the phone calls. Those phone calls are quite expensive. I’m not able to spend 30 to 45 minutes talking to a client on a dedicated phone so that I can feel comfortable that we’re understanding each other.”
The process also forces attorneys to visit the center in person, he said, amplifying the risk for both the community and detainees. Though detainees appear to all have masks, they’re still confined in tight spaces. “I don’t think there’s enough room for them to socially distance or isolate themselves, or follow CDC guidelines. It’s just impossible if the person is detained,” said Garcia.
Attorney Cathy Potter also confirmed that court proceedings have been challenging. The attorney said she was moved with her client to the judge’s courtroom after initially being kept separate. Technical difficulties forced the move, and Potter said she and her client were not six feet apart. Ultimately, the hearing did not proceed because the court was unable to find a translator. The case is pending. “We were six feet apart from the judge. The judge also wasn’t wearing a mask,” she said.
As for whether facility staff is following CDC guidelines and ICE’s published COVID-19 guidance, Potter said conditions appear to have improved beginning the last week of June — just as reports surfaced that the Ahtna employee had passed away. “Insofar as I can determine, the last time a deportation officer actually went into the pod of the dorm was when the cases started to explode,” she said. “They went in to answer the questions of the detainees, who of course were panicking. I believe two or three went in, garbed up, and basically if a detainee said anything, asked questions, it was —shut up, shut your mouth. This was before the last week in June,” she said, noting that Tendo was recently served papers from the visitation room, through the glass, with the officer shoving the papers underneath the door.
According to the attorney, detainees are still being shuffled around between detention centers, which is impacting facility staff in turn. She emphasized, “They’re the ones who aren’t being given proper equipment, PPE, or cleaning stuff. They’re on the front line and they’re getting sick. From what I can determine, many of them are working from home.”
Over the weekend, advocates were forwarded a message sent by a detainee from Guinea alleging that guards had stripped him naked before placing him in what ICE refers to as “disciplinary segregation” — similar to solitary confinement — before turning the air conditioner up for 24 hours. He wrote, “Vraiment maman, moi aussi j’étais très inquiet comment m’échapper avec eux là-bas par ce que il m’ont maltraité me déshabiller comme je suis né et me faire rencontré dans une chambre à l’intérieur il n’y avait pas de lit ni la douche et augmenté le volume de climatiseurs pour me torturé pendant 24 heure par la grâce du seigneur j’ai été sauvé dans leur main.” (“Yes, me too, I was very worried how I could escape them down there, because they mistreated me; they stripped me naked (“like I was born”) and left me in an interior room (meaning no windows) where there was no light or shower, and increased the air conditioning to torture me for 24 hours… by the grace of the Lord, I was saved from their hands.”)
According to the man’s attorney, he allegedly told ICE he was going to commit suicide if deported. “They moved him into a small, windowless room, took all his clothes away, and cranked the air conditioning down as low as it would go,” she alleged.
Asked on Monday whether there’s any policy requiring ICE to strip search detainees before placing them in disciplinary segregation, ICE responded that the agency “has no policy requiring officers to strip search a detainee prior to being placed in restrictive housing.”
. . .
On June 30, members of Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley published a letter written by a young man detained inside PIDC regarding the treatment of asylum seekers in ICE custody. He is a husband and father and had been detained for over eight months:
DHS, ICE AND THE USE OF UNITED STATES TAXPAYERS MONEY TO FUND THE TORTURE OF REFUGEES
I am writing to let you know that the US is now regrettably the world’s leading country in terms of cruelty on migrants, in violation of both domestic and international laws to protect refugees.
It is true that many migrant advocates attest to the fact that ICE is an agency that should not be existing in the 21st century, because of gross human rights violations, but I want to let you know that what they are doing to migrants is equivalent to torture.
If what ICE and DHS as a whole is doing to us refugees was happening in another country, the US would have been the first to criticize, but here they are leading the world in human torture.
The US is supposed to be an example to the world but they are acting in gross violation of the constitutional rights of refugees, including protection from cruel and inhumane treatment, by exposing us to the coronavirus.
The conditions in the detention center here can only be described as horrific and heartbreaking. Our dorm has been on quarantine since June 9, 2020, because of the coronavirus outbreak among detainees, and we keep having new cases. The officers only attend to us from outside the dorm, entering occasionally for counts, like a farmer counts his sheep ready for slaughter, thereby leaving us to wallow with the virus.
We are refugees and not criminals, but ICE in their zeal for evil has jailed us, exposed us to the coronavirus and SYSTEMATICALLY STRIPPED US OF OUR DIGNITY, HUMANITY, IDENTITY, AND OUR INDIVIDUALITY.
Even Iran released about 85,000 prisoners because of the coronavirus pandemic, yet ICE prefers to use taxpayers money to subject innocent asylum seekers to cruel and inhumane treatment, thinking that hurting the less privileged is a form of pride, and will help alleviate their own insecurities.
If you are a taxpayer in the US, I want you to know that you are participating in the torture of humans against international laws, because ICE is using your hard earned money to fund the confinement, physical restraint and exposure of refugees to the coronavirus.
Must of us regret the pains and injustice that humans were subjected to by the Nazis and the slave masters, but this is an epitome of cruelty on refugees by ICE in the 21st century.
WE HAVE NO HAND SANITIZER, AND WE ARE LIVING IN A CROWDED DORM WHERE SOCIAL DISTANCING IS PRACTICALLY IMPOSSIBLE, thus ICE is violating even the State’s Law because of their meanness.
The world is facing the coronavirus pandemic with no vaccine or cure, but ICE which is unable to handle common outbreaks like the measles, in its numerous torture centers throughout the country, is refusing to release migrants who wish to be with their family and sponsors, while they continue with their immigration proceedings. Some detainees are loosing their love ones at home, without the opportunity to say goodbye in their last moments on earth, because they are in ICE captivity.
ICE detention of asylum seekers under horrific conditions even in the midst of the coronavirus, after a reasonable finding that we do not pose threat to safety or risk of flight, violates the “Due Process Clause” because no specific justification exist that outweighs our constitutionally protected interest in avoiding physical restraint.
I suggest that a “writ of habeas corpus” should be filed with the federal district court which has jurisdiction over Port Isabel Detention Center, in order to challenge our detention, because it is unconstitutional and motivated by hatred.
There is no room for meanness, cruelty on the innocent or narrow mindedness by those in authority, if we are to win the war against this global pandemic called coronavirus.
ICE should know that they themselves are not exempted from the coronavirus, since some of their employees have been infected too. On Friday June 26, 2020 a Security Officer in Port Isabel died of the coronavirus, and only God knows the number of detainees who have been infected by the officers and ICE. ICE would have been happy if the virus was infecting only detainees, but thank God the virus does not discriminate.
It should be noted that as the virus continues to spread in Port Isabel Detention Center, It would spill over to the local community. This will further strain the limited resources of the local hospitals, thereby endangering the lives of local residents.
Thus US citizens and residents need to fight for the release of innocent asylum seekers from this illegal captivity, because their hard earned money is used to fund ICE, and the cruelty of ICE will lead to a major uncontrollable coronavirus outbreak in the local community.
It is therefore recommended that ICE release all detainees in their confinement, because punishing us and using taxpayers money to pay for all the expenditures is not in the public interest. Most of us have been found to have a credible fear of persecution or torture in our home countries, and thus a high probability of getting a relief under US and international law, thus it is needless to keep us in bondage at the expense of the local population.
Otherwise ICE can announce to the entire world that the US is no longer a part of international treaty to protect human rights, as they are subjecting refugees to CRUEL AND INHUMANE TREATMENT. ICE is now doing what Australia did to asylum seekers at their offshore torture center in Manus Island.
The United State is still struggling to make restitution for slavery and decades of racial injustice against their own population, yet ICE is working very hard to torture migrants, cruel treatments they will need to apologize for someday.
As you read this, know that words can never fully express the pains we refugees are going through, in addition to being exposed to the coronavirus by our captors, ICE. We are humans and we need to be with our love ones during this pandemic, but ICE is acting against the principle of sanctity of human life.
You can make a difference by sharing this message as much as you can, and doing whatever you can to stop this evil perpetuated on innocent refugees.
THE ONLY CONDITION NECESSARY FOR EVIL TO CONTINUE IS WHEN GOOD PEOPLE DO NOTHING, AND THERE IS NO NOBLER CAUSE THAN TO GET JUSTICE FOR THOSE WHO DESERVE IT.
THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR US TO MAKE A MEANINGFUL IMPACT IN COMBATING EVIL.