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As pandemic reaches 7th month, another COVID-19 outbreak at El Paso ICE facility draws little notice

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El Paso ICE facilities have experienced fluctuating cases of COVID-19 among detainees since the start of the pandemic. At first, public outcry resulted in the appearance of heightened accountability in dealing responsibly with the deadly virus. 

Now, seven months into the pandemic, the El Paso Service Processing Center on Montana Avenue has 23 confirmed active cases of COVID-19 among detainees as of Oct. 6, and has had 32 detainees test positive for the virus since Sept. 14. In all, 222 detainees have tested positive at the facility since the pandemic began.

“I probably got contaminated because they don’t have enough hygiene inside detention. And then on top of that, we were put in the same barracks, in the same cells as contaminated people,” said America, who tested positive for COVID-19 and is currently detained at the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement facility in El Paso. America requested that her full name not be used for fear of possible retaliation. 

Several detainees have reported conditions of medical neglect and questionable virus containment policies among ICE officials, which some community advocates say is frustratingly typical of the agency.

“People in detention do not get the medical care that they need. The severe medical neglect is chronic and it has been for a long time in these facilities, including at El Paso Service Processing Center. That’s not new, that’s just the norm,” said Margaret Brown Vega, an organizer with Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention (AVID) and professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University. 

Brown Vega said that public attention to COVID-19 outbreaks at these facilities has waned as the pandemic has stretched on.

“For those of us who really were early on trying to invest a lot of time (to) track what was going on, a lot of us have run out of steam. I think we’re lacking that kind of intense scrutiny that maybe we had earlier in the spring. There’s enough news about ICE nationally that’s been taking people’s focus away, but I think we probably as a community need to refocus more on what’s going on right here in the El Paso region,” Brown Vega said. 

About 40 motorists took part in a “drive-by” protest of pandemic detention conditions at ICE’s El Paso Service Processing Center in April. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

America said she thinks COVID-19 has spread throughout her barracks at the ICE facility because people are not isolated until they test positive for the virus, which is often several days after they begin exhibiting symptoms. 

“I got the test after several days that I was sick, and then after two days I got the results back. That’s when they realized I had the virus, and that’s when I got moved to another barracks. But in the meantime I was waiting and I was sick,” she said.

Limited transparency on COVID-19 and ICE contractors

Guards at the El Paso ICE facility are another possible vector for spreading the virus both inside and outside of the facilities. ICE releases data for employee COVID-19 cases, but these numbers do not include contract workers. Guards, cafeteria workers, and much of the staff at ICE facilities are contract laborers. 

Working with detainees, El Paso immigration attorney Taylor Levy identified various buildings at the El Paso Service Processing Center.

The city’s public health website indicates that there have been 204 COVID-19 cases among detention workers in El Paso County. The state reports 39 staff cases at the Rogelio Sanchez State Jail, and Sheriff Richard Wiles said 80 county jailers have tested positive. The Juvenile Probation Department reports five detention staffers have tested positive. ICE’s El Paso Processing Center is the only other large detention facility in El Paso and likely accounts for most of the other 80 cases of COVID-19 cases among detention center staff.

Miriam Aarons, spokesperson for Bering Straits Native Corporation, the contractor that staffs ICE’s El Paso Service Processing Center, said that there are currently five confirmed positive employee cases and six employees with results pending.

The lack of specific COVID-19 cluster data from the city obscures the number of cases among contractors at the facility since the onset of the pandemic.

“It was very clear from the mayor and the city attorney that they do not have a concern about people impacted by COVID, whether it’s in the ICE facility, they did not think it was prudent to disclose information that would keep this community safe,” said city Rep. Alexandra Annello, who was one of the City Council members who voted to release COVID-19 cluster data at specific facilities to the public. Mayor Dee Margo cast a tie-breaking vote to withhold cluster data.

“That’s where the issue is. Because we could have. We could have written a resolution that focused on ICE detainees. But when the city attorney interpreted the law and shut this down, they made it very clear that that’s not a concern of theirs,”  she said.

Annello said that a problem with the city’s leadership is that it presumes the city does not have authority to take action in situations like this. 

“We’re constantly putting our authority aside, because he doesn’t think that these immigrant issues are important. And it’s just not right. This is well within our right to keep people safe, and it’s been very clear from the mayor and city attorney that it’s not a concern of theirs,” said Annello. 

Margo said “the city has no oversight control over federal facilities related to (Customs and Border Protection), ICE , or Fort Bliss regarding this pandemic.  It is unfortunate that Rep. Annello is so uninformed.” However, city officials have said COVID-19 cases among detainees and workers at the ICE facility are included in local statistics, but they have refused to provide specific numbers from the El Paso Service Processing Center.

Margo argued that the city’s commitment to immigrant safety is well-documented, and said, “it is up to the federal agency to determine disclosure and our Public Health Department will assist when asked. It is doubtful many El Paso citizens would have contact with the service processing center.”

Aarons said there are nearly 600 contract workers employed at the El Paso ICE facility. Most workers at El Paso County detention centers, including the ICE facility, likely live in El Paso.

In a statement, the city attorney’s office said  “the city has released as much information (about COVID-19 clusters) as legally possible to keep the public informed within state and federal regulations.” However, numerous local governments in Texas have released information about outbreaks at specific facilities, something El Paso has refused to do. New Mexico provides daily updates on COVID-19 cases at ICE detention centers in the state.

Brown Vega said ICE’s response to COVID-19 and the city’s withholding of cluster information is irresponsible. 

“They put a lot of people at risk, not just people in detention but staff, contract staff, and then by association the families of all those people,” she said. 

Quality of medical care

Beyond issues of negligence with how the virus is spreading, many detained persons and immigrant advocates have raised concerns about the medical treatment of detainees once they have gotten the virus. 

The medical room at the ICE’s El Paso Service Processing Center. . (Photo courtesy of Robert Holguin/KFOX)

In a statement to El Paso Matters, ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa said “detainees with laboratory confirmed positive COVID-19 are isolated from the general population and provided medical treatment.” 

But some have reported that medical treatment for COVID-19 at ICE facilities often only involves a Tylenol and a glass of water. 

America said that for her, it’s been even less than that. “Once you get the symptoms and you have COVID, they don’t give you any medicine. Because they say that COVID has no cure, so they don’t give us anything,” she said.

Jen Apodaca, an organizer with El Paso’s Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee, said that rapid deportations compound the problem and obscure the true scale of COVID-19 illness and death among immigrants. 

“It’s been a real shit show. A lot of people have been deported all throughout the summer since this pandemic started. It serves two purposes: one, to disappear people from the system but also (two), we don’t know what happened to those people who got deported who may have been Covid positive. Are they still alive? How many of those people died? Those are things that we don’t know, and it’s kind of a scary thought,” she said. 

Brown Vega argues that sustained attention to mistreatment at these facilities is needed if there is to be any improvement.

“For tens of thousands of people that go through these systems, medical neglect is normal. It’s happening here, it’s happening right now. Most of it’s not splashy enough to get news coverage, but there’s people right now guaranteed that are in El Paso Service Processing Center that are not getting the care that they need. Part of it’s COVID but part of it’s just how ICE operates,”  Brown Vega said. 

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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. She has a new album coming out on Sister Polygon Records in fall 2020, and is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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