By Grace Meng and Linda Corchado

Marisa fled El Salvador in February after sustaining years of violent gender-based abuse and repeated failed attempts to seek protection by the police. Battling symptoms of post-traumatic stress, she made her way to the U.S.-Mexico border and was locked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in El Paso.

Grace Meng

Nearly two months later, Marisa, whose real name is withheld to protect her privacy, began to feel sick. She repeatedly sought medical attention, according to her medical records, but was sent back to the general detention center population and told to gargle salt water. In mid-April, she tested positive for COVID-19.

As of June 24, one staff member and  119 people detained at El Paso Processing Center have tested positive.

“We all were together in the cafeteria, side by side eating with her, and others all bunched up,” a woman housed with Marisa was quoted as saying. Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, which is representing Marisa, has received numerous complaints of COVID-19 positive people intermingling with the general detained population.

A medical expert who reviewed another COVID-19 positive case at the facility concluded that the facility “is dangerously under-equipped and ill-prepared to prevent and manage this COVID-19 outbreak, which will result in severe harm to detained individuals, ICE staff, and the broader community.”

Across the country, almost 2,500 people in ICE custody have tested positive as of Wednesday. Two people have died, another reportedly died soon after being released from a county jail where ICE later revealed 47 out of 51 ICE detainees had tested positive. An epidemiological model released by the Vera Institute for Justice in mid-May, based on ICE’s ongoing apprehensions and transfers, estimates that assuming there were zero cases in mid-March, the actual number of people infected in ICE custody could be 15 times higher than ICE was reporting at that time.

Linda Corchado

Men detained with Carlos Escobar Mejia, the first person to die of COVID-19 in ICE custody, reported that he, like Marisa, repeatedly asked for help, and was sick for days before he was finally hospitalized.

ICE’s failure to prevent infection and protect the health of people in its custody is sadly not surprising.

In 2020, the Department of Homeland Security’s own medical experts informed Congress that detention center conditions pose an “imminent risk to the health and safety of immigration detainees.”

Independent medical experts, analyzing 33 deaths in ICE custody from 2012 to 2017 for Human Rights Watch, found evidence of serious delays, botched emergency responses, and unqualified medical staff in nearly all the cases. They found 15 of those deaths could have been prevented. A recent joint report by Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, and the National Immigrant Justice Center corroborates continuing, disturbing evidence of subpar care while immigration detention expands under the Trump administration.

As of May 23, ICE had released about 900 people identified as being “at higher risk for severe illness.” Several hundred more have been released by court order. But over 23,000 remain locked in immigration detention, which has ballooned since the 1980s, costing taxpayers $3.2 billion in fiscal year 2019, even though there are less costly alternatives to detention.

Nearly two months later, Marisa remains in quarantine. That means her court hearing has been postponed three times, subjecting her to unnecessary and cruel prolonged detention, even though Marisa has family in the United States with whom she could self-quarantine.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it starkly clear: the U.S. immigration detention system is often unnecessary, dangerous and cruel. The continued detention of Marisa and so many others does not serve the public interest and instead devastates an already vulnerable population. ICE should set her and thousands more people free.

Grace Meng is a senior U.S. researcher at Human Rights Watch. Linda Corchado is the director of legal services at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso.