The El Paso Service Processing Center on Montana Avenue houses hundreds of immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In the medical unit at an El Paso Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility, sick detainees use a shared water fountain to take their medications. 

“I’m sure that they clean (the drinking fountain), but I’ve never seen anyone clean it since I’ve been here,” said an asylum seeker currently detained at El Paso Service Processing Center. She asked to not be identified for fear of negative consequences in her asylum case. 

“Everyone who goes into the medical unit — whether you have COVID or not — everyone goes in there to get medications on the daily,” she said, expressing concern about possible viral spread among detainees by using the drinking fountain.

Another detainee said she previously complained about the shared water fountains, which are the primary way detainees access drinking water in their barracks and at the medical unit. She asked why there weren’t any cups, and said she thought it was risky for them all to be touching the same button, using their mouths at the same fountain. But there was no change. She too asked not to be identified for fear of negative consequences in her case. 

The potential for COVID-19 spread through shared water fountains is just one item in a litany of safety concerns raised by the people detained at El Paso Service Processing Center. Immigrants have decried severe medical neglect and inadequate COVID-19 precautions since the start of the pandemic. 

Right now, this El Paso ICE facility is experiencing yet another surge in COVID-19 cases among detainees, according to data reported on ICE’s website. As of Feb. 21, the facility reported 23 current cases and 390 since the pandemic began. Back in December, this facility had the largest COVID-19 outbreak among ICE detention facilities. 

But data inconsistencies and accounts from current detainees and their legal advocates suggest that the numbers on ICE’s website are reported inaccurately, and do not reflect the severity of the actual COVID-19 situation within the facility. 

ICE COVID-19 data is questionable, legal advocates say

Between Dec. 15 and Feb. 4, the number of current COVID-19 cases reported by ICE stayed low, after dramatically dropping from 47 current cases to two current cases in a single day, with no specific explanation from ICE of what accounted for the sudden reduction in numbers. 

“I can’t imagine that’s an accurate number,” said Marysol Castro, referring to the low COVID-19 case counts throughout late December and January. Castro is an attorney with Diocesan and Migrant Refugee Services. She estimates that she has represented at least 60 clients from El Paso Service Processing Center since the start of the pandemic. 

Castro said that she and her colleagues discussed concerns about numerical inaccuracies early on in the pandemic, because they noted that just among their clients they had more current COVID-19 cases than the total number that was being reported for the entire facility. 

El Paso Matters has sent numerous requests to ICE for specific information about how COVID-19 cases are counted at the facility; asking why the numbers dropped so suddenly in December after steadily increasing throughout fall 2020; and why there are new discrepancies in February COVID-19 case numbers. 

An example of recent discrepancies is that current case counts do not keep pace with overall case counts. On Feb. 11, current cases increased by 11, while the total number of cases increased by 36. On Feb. 15 the current case count decreased by one, while the total case count increased by four. The same thing happened again on Feb. 17. 

ICE did not respond to the specific questions from El Paso Matters.

“ICE … will update this site frequently during this extremely fluid situation. Information on the webpage is recorded from a live database and data may change as the agency receives updated case information,” spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa said in a statement. 

Lack of testing after exposure 

Detainee legal advocates are concerned about possible COVID-19 cases among people who aren’t tested for COVID-19, and how insufficient testing may skew total COVID-19 case reporting for the facility. 

“If there’s an outbreak in a certain barrack and if a person isn’t exhibiting symptoms, they won’t be tested for (COVID-19),” said Mari Núñez, project coordinator for the El Paso Immigration Collaborative. 

One of Núñez’s primary job tasks is reading through all of the reports done by EPIC volunteers who conduct legal intake interviews with people detained at ICE facilities in the area, and flagging concerns. 

She said the lack of testing of people who have been exposed to COVID-19 necessarily impacts COVID-19 case counts for the facility. Castro agreed. 

“I’ve had clients that come in and out of quarantine and some of them do get tested, some of them don’t. So if they’re exposed and they’re not testing them, putting them in quarantine but then bringing them back, (then) they could very possibly have had COVID, but they were never tested for it. So not testing them keeps them from having to report them,” she said.

EPSPC accused of violating court-ordered COVID-19 protocol

In April 2020, a federal judge found that ICE had shown “medical indifference” in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and ordered more stringent protections to be implemented, particularly to ensure that medically vulnerable immigrants were safe. 

This case, Fraihat et al v. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, mandated that ICE detention facilities consider releasing people deemed medically vulnerable under a set list of criteria, and provide an explanation if they decided not to release them. Protocol changes connected to Fraihat also mandate that medical isolation must be operationally different from punitive forms of housing (such as solitary confinement). 

Both Castro and Núñez said that EPSPC has not been following safety directives associated with the Fraihat ruling. 

“Someone reported to us that there isn’t enough room in medical at (El Paso Service Processing Center) right now. And so folks who don’t have emergency-type medical conditions are being placed into solitary confinement for treatment,” said Núñez, pointing out that this is a violation of Fraihat. “ICE is not supposed to be placing people into solitary confinement for quarantine.”

Castro said that she has experienced numerous instances with clients who fall under the definition of medically vulnerable, but are denied release with no explanation from ICE, also a violation of Fraihat. 

“They’re not being transparent. They’re not showing why they’re doing what they’re doing,” Castro said. 

Advocacy organizations like the ACLU have condemned the lack of transparency and accountability ICE has shown in its COVID-19 response, specifically identifying the “untimely and incomplete information” on ICE’s website as a key cause for concern. 

Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, also has sharply criticized ICE’s handling of the pandemic, describing detention facilities as “petri dishes for COVID-19.”

“After almost a year since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and despite repeated calls for ICE to release detainees from dangerous conditions, ICE continues to fail to implement protocols and procedures to prevent the spread of the deadly virus and protect the health of detainees, staff, and our community,” she said. 

Cover photo: The El Paso Service Processing Center on Montana Avenue houses hundreds of immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.