ICE 'cohorting' of Az detainees at risk of COVID-19 stirs controversy
BREAKING UPDATE: As of 11 a.m. MST on April 16, ICE has confirmed six positive COVID-19 cases at La Palma Correctional Center, despite assertions in April 13 court filings that there were no confirmed or suspected cases at the facility at that time. There are now 12 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Arizona immigration detention facilities. AZCIR will update this story as information is available.
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer revealed in court documents April 13 that 98 immigrant detainees at the La Palma Correctional Center in Arizona were, as of that morning, "cohorted" and under daily observation due to their exposure to the facility's first confirmed case of COVID-19 on April 1.
ICE is using the strategy of "cohorting" groups of detainees together who are at risk for developing symptoms after known contact with someone who tested positive. While ICE asserts the tactic follows U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, some medical experts say it is a last resort strategy that could lead to the virus spreading further.
Eight immigrants in Arizona detention facilities had tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 15 – two at La Palma and six at the Florence Detention Center. Nationally, confirmed detention center cases jumped from 19 to 89 over the last week.
In all, ICE had more than 32,000 immigrants detained in its network of facilities, privately-run prisons and local jails as of April 11. In Arizona, 2,982 people were in ICE custody – most of them in facilities in Pinal County.
Before Monday's court filing, ICE had not disclosed how many people in any Arizona immigration detention facility had been cohorted due to exposure. The agency also has not revealed how many detainees have been tested for COVID-19.
Jason Ciliberti, the ranking ICE officer at La Palma, explained the cohorting practices in response to a lawsuit filed by the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project on behalf of eight detainees in La Palma and the Eloy Detention Center. The lawsuit is asking a federal judge to compel the agency to release the detainees, who have pre-existing health conditions, given the threat of COVID-19.
Ciliberti stated that all La Palma detainees "are cohorted in their respective housing units with meals being provided in the housing units and no inter-housing unit contact between detainees" until at least April 14.
The facility can hold more than 3,000 individuals, according to records, but ICE and CoreCivic – the private company operating La Palma – declined to provide current figures.
"La Palma medical staff report that the [two] previously confirmed cases of COVID-19 have resolved, and that there are no new confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 at the facility," the ICE court filing said. One of the infected men was a recent arrival who was quarantined away from the general population at intake, and was released from ICE custody after being hospitalized "for an unrelated injury/illness," according to Ciliberti.
The agency asserts its practice of cohorting together asymptomatic detainees who may have been exposed to the virus follows CDC guidelines for correctional and detention facilities.
But those guidelines say "Cohorting should only be practiced if there are no other viable options." The CDC also warns: "Cohorting multiple quarantined close contacts of a COVID-19 case could transmit COVID-19 from those who are infected to those who are uninfected."
A federal lawsuit in Miami filed April 13 alleges immigration officials are violating CDC guidelines by using cohorting instead of releasing immigrant detainees where possible.
As of last week, approximately 238 people at Miami's Krome Service Processing Center were being "cohorted" due to exposure to a detainee with the virus, court documents stated.
"In these settings, hundreds, and potentially thousands of people will become infected, and many will die," according to Dr. Joseph Shin, a professor at Weill Cornell Medicine, in a declaration filed in support of the Miami lawsuit. He argues immigration officials cannot be in compliance with CDC guidelines for social distancing and quarantining unless they release detainees on a large scale.
ICE released an April 15 statement on its website stating that it released nearly 700 individuals nationally in an effort to minimize the spread of the virus and is taking fewer people into its custody. The agency said the number of people detained has dropped by 4,000 since March 1.
ICE releasing some detainees, but advocates say not quickly enough
ICE has come under fierce scrutiny by medical experts, advocates, lawyers and families of those detained, who argue that the agency has broad discretion to release detainees instead of keeping them in facilities where the virus could spread rapidly. Federal judges around the country, including in California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, have ordered some detainees with health conditions to be released in response to lawsuits.
Since the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project filed its lawsuit on behalf of eight detainees on April 1, ICE released several of the detained plaintiffs even before a judge issued a ruling. Staff attorney Laura Belous said the agency also released some of her other clients on humanitarian parole.
"The issue is that it's not enough, and it's not fast enough," Belous said. As for the facilities with confirmed cases, she added, "It's already too late."
The U.S. Attorney's Office, which represents ICE in the case, insisted in an April 13 court filing that the remaining detainee plaintiffs in the La Palma and Eloy detention centers were not in danger and should not be released. "[T]he testing and isolation protocols that are in place are reasonable steps to identify and isolate any such case should they occur," according to the filing, which asserted there are no active cases of COVID-19 in either facility.
Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, said if La Palma has no new cases after 14 days of its last positive test, the virus may be under control.
"But the risk is still there – especially if they don't have a lot of testing," Benjamin said. "The rest of us don't have adequate access to tests – I would wonder how they would."
Benjamin said he was concerned to hear about the rising number of cases in the Florence Detention Center, where confirmed COVID-19 cases went from two to six in a matter of days, "which tells you they are two weeks behind the outbreak already."
Though ICE reported the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Florence Detention Center on April 9 and La Palma on April 1, there are indications the virus might have been spreading in both facilities since late March. Guatemalan authorities announced this week that 50-75 percent of passengers on a March 26 deportation flight from Mesa, Arizona later tested positive for COVID-19 after they arrived in Guatemala.
ICE previously confirmed one man on that flight was held in the Florence Detention Center prior to deportation. Another man, who tested positive in Guatemala, had been held in La Palma before his March 25 removal.
Panic and fear persist for immigrant detainees
Detainees still locked inside Arizona facilities have described panic and frustration about what they claim is an overall lack of transparency about ICE's COVID-19 policies.
"It is heart wrenching to have the uncertainty if we are going to live or die in detention," said Javier De Jesús Zelada, a 26-year-old asylum seeker from El Salvador. "It's terrifying," he said, adding that he is now facing a new threat after leaving his home country in fear of his life.
Over the past week, AZCIR interviewed seventeen men, the majority of whom are asylum seekers, assigned to three separate housing pods in La Palma. They said their housing pods have frequently been on lockdown in recent days, meaning they must remain in their cells for hours without access to common areas, phones or televisions. They also expressed frustration about what they said was inadequate access to medical care, insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) in the facility and a general scarcity of soap and cleaning supplies.
Amanda Gilchrist, a spokesperson for CoreCivic, refuted charges that the facility is not informing detainees about their risks of exposure to the virus. She wrote in a statement April 13 that when there are positive cases at the facility, "both affected and non-affected detainees are notified in person and in writing" in both English and Spanish.
In previous statements to AZCIR, Gilchrist has denied the lack of cleaning supplies and access to medical care. "Claims that staff are ignoring the medical needs of detainees is patently false," she wrote.
The tensions at La Palma escalated this past weekend as detainees protested what they believed was a lack of access to medical care. La Palma facility staff deployed pepper spray, ICE confirmed in a statement.
Ronald Villegas, a 32-year-old Venezuelan, is concerned about his voluntary job in the kitchen. It requires him to deliver and retrieve a food cart to a pod he believes is being actively monitored and sequestered due to exposure to COVID-19. The pod in question is guarded by staff in full protective gear. Villegas has no PPE, he said in an April 9 phone interview. He wasn't permitted to enter the pod but was expected to wheel away a cart of dirty dishes used by the detainees inside.
"There's no safety for us," he said.
Ivan Hernández, a 32-year-old asylum seeker from Cuba who washes dishes in the same kitchen, said he shares Villegas's concern. The men said they also worried detainees from different pods all work together in the kitchen.
Their statements contradict ICE's assertions in its April 13 Arizona court filing that says no such contact occurred between April 1 and April 14.
"The only thing they tell us is to keep our distance from each other," Hernández said La Palma guards told him after he expressed concern. "We ask about the disease, and they say: 'Keep your distance.'"
Five detainees who spoke with AZCIR said the facility didn't offer them masks until April 10. They were required to sign a contract, the men claimed, before staff provided the masks. The form explained the masks might not protect them from contracting the virus, and released CoreCivic from liability, according to descriptions provided to AZCIR by detainees. Some men said they felt coerced.
"We signed it because we needed the masks," Javier de Jesús Zelada said.
Staff at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, another CoreCivic facility, also initially asked detainees to sign contracts in order to receive masks, according to The San Diego Union Tribune. The contract included "a section saying that detainees agree to 'hold harmless' CoreCivic and its agents and employees 'from any and all claims that I may have related directly to my wearing the face mask,'" the newspaper reported. Fifteen detainees and five ICE officers in Otay Mesa have tested positive for COVID-19.
Gilchrist, the CoreCivic spokesperson, confirmed in a statement that an "educational handout" was distributed with the PPE, and wrote that "No signed waiver will be required to receive a mask." She refused AZCIR's request for a copy of the form.
When Juliana Manzanarez, a lawyer, visited clients in both the Florence Detention Center and La Palma on April 10, she was required to wear goggles, mask and gloves, and have her temperature taken. While staff at La Palma's entrance also wore full protective gear, Manzanarez said no one else she saw inside the facility had masks or eye protection.
"It just looked normal," Manzanarez said. "There is nobody that I saw, anyways, [April 10] that was wearing anything. Maybe the occasional glove."
Alexis Salazar, a 53-year-old Cuban man, said his greatest fear is that guards who are not wearing masks or gloves will bring the virus into their pod from the outside community, or parts of the facility where people may be infected.
Gilchrist wrote in a statement Friday that all La Palma staff are screened for symptoms and have temperatures checked before entering the facility. She also wrote that staff in the facility's front lobby are equipped with face masks, eye protection, gowns and disposable gloves – though she did not say if the same was true for all guards working in the pods.
Social distancing is impossible within housing pods, said Edmundo Sánchez, a 33-year-old-asylum seeker from Venezuela.
"Everyone is playing defense," he said. When detainees aren't forced to stay in their individual cells, he said people argue over things such as keeping the microwave clean. He and others are worried about sharing six phones among a large group of detainees.
"There's three televisions and the one that has Telemundo or the news has 50 people [watching] it," Sánchez said, adding that most are anxious to stay informed about the virus. "Everybody is next to each other."
Many immigration court cases at La Palma Correctional Center have been postponed, forcing difficult decisions for those detained. They either can remain in detention while waiting to fight their cases, or give up and ask for deportation.
Zelada, the asylum seeker from El Salvador who said he was terrified, has already been in detention for 10 months. Like many of those interviewed, he said he applied for humanitarian parole before the pandemic started, but ICE denied his request because he could be a flight risk.
The Salvadoran migrant says he has developed a routine in detention.
Any time he touches a chair or a table, he runs upstairs to his cell to wash his hands with the dish soap he bought from the commissary. He said he feels lucky he can afford to buy it.
Editor’s Note: The Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project lawsuit was filed with lawyers from Perkins Coie, LLP, including its partner Dan Barr, who previously represented AZCIR in a 2017 Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Barr and his firm have also provided media-related legal representation for reporters Jude Joffe-Block and Valeria Fernández.