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Detainee tests positive for COVID-19 at El Paso ICE facility, attorneys say

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A woman detained at the El Paso Service Processing Center, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility on Montana Avenue, has tested positive for COVID-19, multiple immigration attorneys told El Paso Matters. It is the first reported case at the El Paso detention facility.

County Commissioner David Stout said ICE officials confirmed the COVID-19 infection on Friday during a meeting with him, County Judge Ricardo Samaniego and Catholic Bishop Mark Seitz.

“She has been placed in isolation with negative pressure. They said that anyone she was in contact with has been isolated from others, as well,” Stout said.

Women detained at a barracks at the El Paso detention center were told Thursday night that a woman in their unit had tested positive, the attorneys said. One client said they were informed by medical personnel “dressed like astronauts,” meaning in full personal protective equipment.

Detainees in the barracks told their attorneys they were being placed in quarantine.

“They treat us like dogs. We are in quarantine, we are 54 people in our dorm, we do not have disinfectant or wipes for our phones. (The infected woman) lived a few meters away from me. The guards have not said anything, just the nurse told us yesterday saying that we do not have that many tests and everyone has to be distant,” according to notes of an interview that Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center did with one of its clients on Friday. “The nurses last night told us that ICE is going to talk to us in the morning and it is 11 a.m. now, they have not talked to us. They are bringing the food and medicine that people would normally go to medical for; the nurses look like they have yellow suits and goggles with masks.”

ICE officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. No cases were reported at the El Paso facility in a Friday afternoon update of COVID-19 cases on the ICE website.

When a detainee and a worker at a privately run ICE detention facility in Chaparral, N.M., tested positive for COVID-19 last week, ICE didn’t include the detainee infection on its website until two days after notifying Sen. Mark Udall, N.M., of the positive test. 

Las Americas officials issued a statement calling for ICE to be more forthcoming with COVID-19 information.

“Obviously, we need ICE to be forthcoming and transparent about what has occurred. We must know what the current
status of COVID-19 is at (the El Paso detention facility). All persons detained and employed at that facility must be tested as soon as possible,” the statement said. “But more than that ICE must take proactive measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 in their facilities before they further risk the lives of detained migrants and communities in the Borderland.”

Religious leaders, elected officials and immigrant advocates have urged ICE to release most of its detainees, who are in civil rather than criminal proceedings, to minimize the risk of infection spread to detainees, ICE employees and communities with detention facilities.

ICE said it has released 700 detainees who were at high risk of serious complications of COVID-19, after evaluating whether they posed a public safety risk. “This same methodology is currently being applied to other potentially vulnerable populations currently in custody and while making custody determinations for all new arrests,” ICE said in a statement on its website.

The agency said it provides detainees with soap and hand sanitizer. Detainees have told their attorneys they are not allowed to wear masks.

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Robert Moore

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986. His work has received a number of top journalism honors including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, Pulitzer Prize finalist and the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award. Moore’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, ProPublica, National Public Radio, The Guardian and other publications. He has been featured as an expert on border issues by CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC and PBS.

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