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Sick detainee reports medical neglect during COVID-19 outbreak at El Paso ICE facility

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A detainee who has tested positive for COVID-19 at the ICE El Paso Processing Center described neglectful conditions among sick detainees as an outbreak spread in the facility. 

Sandra, whose last name will not be used for fear of negative repercussions, said she was tested for COVID-19 six days after first reporting symptoms of the virus to medical staff. 

Fifty years old and immunocompromised, Sandra has high blood pressure, hypertension, anemia and ischemic heart disease. She is originally from Mexico, but has lived in the United States since 1989 and was taken in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention in early April. 

Sandra said that she first reported COVID-19 symptoms on Sept. 11. “I had a fever. The nurse said my oxygen was low, and my blood pressure was kind of high. She said take Tylenol and the doctor is going to see you later,” Sandra said. “Saturday and Sunday I was waiting for them to call me because I was feeling really bad. I had a fever, I (couldn’t) move from my bed, the guards weren’t helping me, nobody called me.” 

She didn’t hear from the doctor until the following Tuesday, and was finally tested for COVID-19 on Thursday, Sept. 17. During this time, Sandra said that she did not have access to her blood pressure medication, and Sandra’s daughter also reported that she was not able to get through to her mother over the phone.

Sandra described how she and other detainees who went to the detention center’s clinic with symptoms of COVID-19 were given Tylenol and sent back to their barracks, where detainees share close quarters with one another. Detainees suspected of having COVID-19 were not allowed to enter the medical clinic, Sandra reported, and instead received medical assessments while standing outside. 

During one medical assessment, Sandra told the nurse that she had been regularly coughing up blood. She said that the nurse went into the clinic to talk to the doctor. When the nurse came back out she told Sandra to drink water, because “probably my mouth is dry,” Sandra said. 

ICE has not responded to requests for comment on the allegations Sandra raised about how the agency is responding to the current outbreak at its El Paso facility.

ICE’s website reports 10 COVID-19 among detainees at the El Paso Processing Center that are currently under isolation or monitoring, as of Monday. The facility has reported 202 total cases among detainees since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Moving around detainees increases COVID-19 transmission risk

Rosa de Jong, an accredited legal representative who has been working with Sandra, said 10 new people were put into Sandra’s dorm the week before she and other detainees began showing symptoms of COVID-19.

Sandra’s daughter Merari is seven months pregnant, and said it is unfair that her mother is being held in detention. She said, “We need our mom to be here with us.” (Photo provided by Merari)

“(Something) we see pretty frequently is that ICE just kind of (moves) people between different dorms. They do everything that should be on the top 10 list of things you don’t do during a pandemic. We are seeing clients who have been in three different detention centers in the last week, just flown around the country,” de Jong said. 

A July New York Times investigation determined that ICE’s methods of transporting detainees had resulted in domestic and international spreading of coronavirus. 

De Jong said that a typical detainee can end up having contact with quite a few other people, even while following social distancing guidelines. Sandra said there were 29 women in her barracks when she first got sick. The barracks can often accommodate up to 60 detainees, but are being maintained at reduced numbers to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission, de Jong said. 

“What ICE has done to make space for people to be socially distanced is they make people sleep from head to foot,” said de Jong. “If everybody was a statue, people would be six feet apart the whole day. But this is their living space, so people aren’t just a statue sitting on their bed. They’re moving around, they’re going to the cafeteria where other people are, they have a lot of contact with guards, they go outside, they go to the library. Unless they’re in quarantine they have a lot of contact with a lot of people,” she said.

ICE guards unaware of COVID-19 cases among detainees

Sandra was placed in isolation after testing positive for the virus. She said that some guards were not wearing personal protective equipment or social distancing, and did not seem to know that she had COVID-19.

“The guards need to be more careful. Even right now, some of them don’t know that I’m positive. They were asking me, ‘what’s going on … why do you need to be over here?’ They were not wearing gloves, they were (not wearing) masks, and they were around me,” Sandra said.

Sandra’s youngest child is now 13 years old, and is being cared for by Sandra’s daughter Merari while Sandra is in detention. (Photo provided by Merari)

The latest outbreak at the ICE facility comes as cases in the El Paso community have begun to increase after several weeks of decline. El Paso is on pace this week to have more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases, the first time that level has been reached since mid-August.

De Jong said that the potential for community spread from ICE detention facilities is a risk.

“This doesn’t only affect detained individuals. There are dozens of guards who go in every day. These are guards who, not all of them believe in the coronavirus, a lot of them aren’t using masks. When ICE hides who has coronavirus in a detention center they’re also exposing the whole region to cases, and that’s something I think about a lot,” said de Jong.

ICE has reported that only one of its employees at the El Paso Processing Center has tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, although this number has not been updated since June. ICE does not disclose the number of contract workers who have tested positive. The vast majority of people working at the ICE facility — guards, kitchen staff, medical professionals — are employees of contractors and not the agency.

When asked for the total number of COVID-19 cases among contract workers and employees, ICE spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa directed El Paso Matters to the employee case number from June on ICE’s website. When asked for more current numbers including contract employees, ICE did not reply. 

Why was Sandra detained in the first place?

Sandra is a single mother and was detained in April at a Border Patrol checkpoint within the United States while on a family vacation. She has lived in the United States for more than 30 years, and all but one of her seven children are U.S. citizens. 

Her 25-year-old daughter Merari has been taking care of her younger siblings in her mother’s absence. 

“My mom has been here (most of) her life. It’s unfair that she has been in (the detention facility) this long already. She has little kids here, and I’m trying to take care of my little siblings. But it’s difficult you know — I’m not their mom, and we need our mom to be here with us,” said Merari, who is seven months pregnant.

De Jong said that the decision to detain Sandra in the first place suggests a callous attitude toward the virus.

“It’s really telling that Sandra was detained during the pandemic. She didn’t commit any crime, the same week that the first (COVID-19) cases were confirmed at El Paso Processing Center, they decided to detain a 50-year-old woman who’s immunocompromised,” de Jong said. 

Merari has had difficulty reaching her mother over the phone at the ICE facility since she first started exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. (Photo provided by Merari)

ICE has reported that it follows CDC guidelines to review the potential medical risk of detainees who might be at greater likelihood of severe illness connected to COVID-19. However, when asked for comment on whether any El Paso ICE facilities have released detainees because of medical risk, and what criteria for medical risk release is, ICE did not reply. 

Bernardo Rafael Cruz, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas, condemned the nature of ongoing detention throughout the pandemic. 

“The deficient medical treatment reported at the EPPC highlights the incredible danger that ICE chooses to place individuals in, simply for immigration enforcement purposes. Individuals who are highly vulnerable to serious illness and death from COVID-19 are forced by ICE to live in terrible conditions — where basic public health directives, like social distancing, go unfollowed. In a global pandemic, that has already claimed the lives of 200,000 people in the U.S., these detentions remain gratuitous and harmful.”

Cover photo: Sandra, who has tested positive for COVID-19 and is currently detained at the El Paso ICE detention facility, has lived in the United States since 1989. She has seven children and six of them are U. S. citizens. (Photo provided by Merari, Sandra’s daughter)

René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. Her new album came out on Sister Polygon Records in September 2020, and she is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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