UPDATE: As of Monday, April 27, ICE has reported that seven detainees at the El Paso Processing Center have tested positive for COVID-19.
Six asylum seekers detained in El Paso are suing Immigration and Customs Enforcement for their release during the COVID-19 outbreak, saying they are at risk of serious complications and that ICE isn’t doing enough to protect detainees.
The lawsuit was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in El Paso by women ranging in age from 25 to 60. All say they have medical conditions that put them at high risk of complications if they are infected by COVID-19 and one tested positive for the novel coronavirus hours before the lawsuit was filed.
“I think their lives are at stake. This facility, no matter how hard ICE tries, is unable to take the very precautions that all of us are so familiar with for the people in there,” Chris Benoit, one of the attorneys representing the women, said in an interview.
ICE declined to comment, citing a policy against public discussion of ongoing litigation.
Detainee tests positive for COVID-19
One of the six women suing for release learned hours before the suit was filed that she had tested positive for COVID-19.
Rosa, a 25-year-old former law student in Guatemala, has persistent headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and experiences frequent nose bleeds and pain in her throat, the lawsuit says. (El Paso Matters doesn’t fully identify asylum seekers who say they fear persecution in their home countries.)
“On Monday, April 20, 2020, (Rosa) began coughing up blood and demanded to be tested for COVID-19. EPPC medical staff eventually brought her to the medical wing and put her on an IV,” the lawsuit said. She has a compromised immune system and is awaiting results of her COVID-19 test, according to the lawsuit.
She was held in an area with 11 other women who have shown COVID-19 symptoms, the lawsuit says. Detainees have previously told El Paso Matters that the first woman who tested positive for COVID-19 is isolated in that group of 12 women.
Rosa called her immigration attorney, Heidi Cerneka of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, Friday morning to tell her she had tested positive for COVID-19.
“She’s had other health issues and symptoms for weeks now that she felt like were never really addressed. The most common response she got when she complained was to drink water,” Cerneka said.
“She’s scared that she’s not going to get the help she needs. She said to me the other day, ‘When I left my country, I had no health problems. And so now I have suspicion of COVID-19. I have these other health issues going on.’ And here’s a person who fled her country for safety reasons and is now here in our detention system dealing with other safety issues,” Cerneka said.
Rosa has been detained for more than a year. She sought humanitarian parole on April 7 because she feared she was at risk of a novel coronavirus infection, but ICE denied her request, the lawsuit says.
Conditions inside ICE detention
Federal judges have ordered some ICE detainees in other facilities released because of COVID-19 vulnerability, but this is believed to be the first such suit in El Paso. ICE has reported more than 300 COVID-19 infections among detainees nationwide as of Friday, including five at the El Paso Processing Center. That count does not include Rosa.
El Paso County Commissioner David Stout said El Paso ICE officials told him at a meeting on Friday that the first woman to test positive for COVID-19 had been transferred from another detention facility, and she appears to have spread the infection to other women at the El Paso facility.
Standard precautions not taken, women say
ICE detainees are not charged with crimes. They are held while their immigration status is determined in civil courts. ICE has broad discretion to release detainees who don’t pose a threat to the community and aren’t flight risks. The agency has said it has released about 700 people at high risk of COVID-19 complications in recent weeks. More than 30,000 people are still detained by the agency, including 500 to 600 at the El Paso facility.
The lawsuit alleges that ICE hasn’t followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to protect against the spread of COVID-19. El Paso detainees sleep in bunk beds placed near each other in a dormitory-style setting with dozens of other people. They dine and socialize in close contact with each other in common areas, according to the lawsuit.
ICE rarely cleaned the barracks and common areas of the El Paso facility before April 17, when the first detainee tested positive for COVID-19, the lawsuit alleges. Detainees were provided with limited soap or shampoo and were not given hand sanitizer.
Detainees are prohibited from wearing face coverings recommended by CDC as a means of slowing COVID-19’s spread, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit warns that a COVID-19 outbreak at the detention facility could strain the resources of University Medical Center, where detainees are frequently sent when they are seriously ill.
All detained women at the El Paso ICE facility were placed under 14-day quarantine on April 17 and are not allowed to leave their barracks except to seek medical care, according to the lawsuit.
The outbreak at the El Paso Processing Center puts the surrounding community at risk, a University of Colorado medical professor said in a declaration accompanying the lawsuit.
“A large outbreak of COVID-19 in an immigration detention facility would put a tremendous strain on the medical system to the detriment of patients in the communities surrounding these centers. It is reasonable to anticipate that there will be the loss of additional lives that could have otherwise been saved,” said Dr. Carlos Franco-Paredes, an infectious disease specialist.
The lawsuit asks the court to order “immediate release, with appropriate precautionary public health measures” for the six women. Each has sponsors in the United States willing to take them in, according to the lawsuit. Annunciation House, an El Paso nonprofit that assists asylum seekers, refugees and other immigrants, has previously said it would provide quarantine facilities if needed for released detainees.
The six women are represented by attorneys from Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and the University of Texas School of Law Civil Rights Clinic.
Cover photo: Several women have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement El Paso Processing Center. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)
Disclosure: Chris Benoit, one of the attorneys representing the six women in a lawsuit against ICE, also is representing Robert Moore of El Paso Matters in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against ICE, Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Health and Human Services.