“Systematic Inaction”: First Reported COVID-19 Death In U.S. Immigrant Detention Centre

The United States’ first official COVID-19 death to occur while in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody was reported on Wednesday, May 6th. The 57-year-old man from El Salvador contracted the virus in the Otay Mesa Detention Center in California and was hospitalized in late April, according to the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency.

Otay Mesa reported its first COVID-19 case in late March. The detention centre currently has 132 confirmed infections, according to I.C.E. – the most of any center in the country. In total, around half of the 1,400 ICE detainees tested nationally for the virus were confirmed positive. There are approximately 30,000 immigrants currently detained in I.C.E. facilities across the country. Due to the scale of testing, the true number of infections may be much higher.

Additionally, 39 I.C.E. employees working in the detention centres have tested positive for the virus nationwide. 10 of these employees work at Otay Mesa. These figures do not include the large numbers of contracted workers. While I.C.E. maintains that the health, safety and well-being of its detainees are “among the highest priorities” for the organization, recent reports tell a different story.

I.C.E. have routinely come under fire for their inadequacy in handling even routine medical care. A recent report from the BBC detailed how this calculated neglect has deteriorated further during the pandemic. An inmate interviewed at Otay Mesa described how detainees have had to survive on bread and water after the facility’s cooks stopped working due to the virus. Nor were inmates given protective face masks or gloves, despite increasing COVID-19 cases and improper quarantine procedures at the centre. Many have resorted to fashioning their own protective equipment from clothing, sanitary pads, and hair ties. The BBC and several organizations attempting to provide aid for the detainees confirmed that the same pattern was described at countless other centres.

I.C.E. detention centres represent the ideal environment for the virus’ transmission. Overcrowded facilities make social distancing impossible. Detainees are also responsible for cleaning their own shared bathrooms, again without access to protective equipment.

Veronica Salama, an immigration attorney from the Southern Poverty Law Center, described how staff members “enter the units where the detainees are […] without gloves or masks.” She also revealed a total lack of precautionary information, stating her clients “had no idea of the severity of this disease” and that “officials did not inform them of anything or give them any handouts with instructions for hand washing.”

Otay Mesa had already made headlines in mid-April after detainees were allegedly pepper-sprayed in their cells. According to the victims, the attack was in response to their refusal to sign a waiver which would release the centre from any responsibility for virus transmissions or deaths. Additional reports claim the use of prolonged solitary confinement to psychology torture those attempting to organize for safer treatment or protest through hunger-strikes.

Los Angeles federal Judge Jesús Bernal determined that evidence collected suggested “systematic inaction” by the U.S. government “that goes beyond a mere difference of medical opinion or negligence.”

While I.C.E. has decreased arrest operations during the pandemic, it continues to target those who it says pose “public safety risks.” Deportations have also continued, drawing criticism from countries worried about containment. Guatemala has refused to accept additional deportees, after dozens of returned migrants tested positive.

Lawsuits and court orders have led to small numbers of medically vulnerable and elderly detainees being released. Pro-immigrant advocate groups continue to push for the release of families and unaccompanied minors from the facilities. As of April 23rd, there were still just under 2,000 children in I.C.E. custody.

In case the imprisonment of innocent children, brutal treatment and genocidal neglect from these facilities were not sufficient demonstration of their immorality, a 2019 report by The Globe Post reveals how this whole process operates for profit. Alongside America’s for-profit prison system, I.C.E. generates substantial profits for corrections corporations, contractors, and their shareholders. Portions of these profits are then fed back into lobbying the government, allowing those who make money from mass incarceration to shape the laws and policies around it.

Donald Trump may have ridden the wave scapegoating and immigration fears into office, but the for-profit detention of immigrants predates his presidency. Similarly, while coronavirus has raised the stakes, human rights violations were daily reality of the industry long before the pandemic. Considering the scale of America’s outbreak and the conditions at these detention centres, cynical minds may question just how many unreported coronavirus deaths precede this apparent first.

Louie Neale