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Women held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in El Paso are expressing growing concern after several detainees tested positive for COVID-19. ICE has confirmed five positive cases but the number of people exposed to the virus is much higher, according to women inside the facility.
“It’s frightening” is how one of the women described the situation after learning a person they were in contact with daily has tested positive for COVID-19.
She and another woman reached out to express their concerns after they were placed in quarantine. They don’t want their names or other identifying details used because they fear punishment from ICE, including having their phone privileges revoked.
“We all were together in the cafeteria, side by side eating with her, and others all bunched up,” the first woman said.
“We mingled with the first girl who on the 16th was detected with COVID-19 and tested positive,” the second woman said.
Quarantined in a tent
These women say they are among 17 detainees now quarantined in a tent at ICE’s El Paso Service Processing Center.
“Thank God none of us have symptoms,” the first woman said.
But behind a partition in the tent are other women who they suspect are sick with COVID-19.
“There are 12 people who are wearing face masks,” the first woman said. That includes the first woman who tested positive on April 16.
“The rest of the 11 must already be sick if she’s in there with them,” said the first woman.
“They’re all mixed together,” said the other woman.
The women who are in quarantine in the El Paso processing center said they’ve asked for information from the staff at the detention center about what is happening but don’t get answers. They also complain they do not have enough soap and the “chemical” used to wash their clothes is causing rashes. They are not allowed outside to exercise because they are in quarantine, they said.
The beds in the tent have been spaced apart to help with social distancing, but the women say precautions were only taken after some of the detainees became visibly sick.
“That’s when they began to separate us,” the first woman said.
ICE, El Paso public health officials provide little information
ICE has reported 287 COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday among detainees across the country, including five in the El Paso detention facility and one at the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M. ICE has ignored El Paso Matters’ request for comments about the situation in El Paso-area facilities.
The agency also has said 32 employees at detention centers have tested positive for COVID-19, but none in the El Paso area. That count appears to include only people who work directly for ICE and excludes contract employees. ICE told Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., that a worker at Otero — where most of the staff are contractors — tested positive for COVID-19, but ICE has never publicly acknowledged that.
El Paso public health officials don’t seem to be tracking whether any workers at the ICE facility on Montana Avenue have tested positive for COVID-19 and are at risk for spreading the disease in the community.
City spokeswoman Laura Cruz-Acosta said El Paso public health officials are not including ICE detention cases in their count of infections because the tests are conducted by the federal government. Any employees or contractors working at the facility who test positive would be included in the public health count, but Cruz-Acosta couldn’t say if any had tested positive.
When asked if city public health officials have begun an epidemiological investigation now that ICE has acknowledged a cluster of cases at its detention facility, Cruz-Acosta said: “Staff advised that they are still investigating and once we have relevant information regarding any federal detention facilities we will be able to share as we did with the health facility.”
She was referring to an outbreak at the El Paso Psychiatric Center in which 42 patients and employees have tested positive. The city has refused to identify the health facility; medical and legal officials have identified the facility to El Paso Matters.
El Paso Matters CEO Robert Moore contributed to this story.