A 45-year-old immigrant from Guatemala detained at the La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy has tested positive for COVID-19, marking the first coronavirus case confirmed in an Arizona immigration detention center, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In a statement Wednesday, ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe said people who were in contact with the individual “have been cohorted and are being monitored for symptoms.”
Six people held at immigration detention centers nationally have tested positive for COVID-19, according to ICE’s coronavirus website. The cases outside Arizona were all registered in three different facilities in New Jersey.
The case in La Palma is not the first COVID-19 case related to an immigration detention facility in Arizona.
On March 26, ICE deported a man to Guatemala who was held at the Florence Detention Center in Arizona and was asymptomatic for COVID-19, according to ICE. Days later, Guatemalan health officials announced the man, who is 29 years old, had tested positive for the coronavirus, and that another 41 people were aboard his same deportation flight, according to the Dallas Morning News.
ICE said the flight left from the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, which is one of five major hubs where airline contractors assist ICE in deportation and detainee transfers across the country.
Pamela Florian, chair of the Arizona chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said it’s unclear whether the La Palma facility will continue to be open for legal visitations, and whether people held there will be allowed to attend their immigration court hearings in the neighboring Eloy Detention Center.
“We have not received adequate information, there are a lot of mixed messages,” Florian said. “Our reaction is frustration, as they are putting more people in danger: the detainees, the staff, their families and our members, as well.”
For several weeks, AILA AZ has called for the federal government to halt immigration court proceedings of people held in detention centers. On March 23, ICE began turning away immigration lawyers from detention centers in Arizona if they showed up without protective gear.
Pitts O’Keefe didn’t respond to questions on whether the La Palma facility was still transferring people to other facilities or states, and whether legal visitations were allowed.
The latest report from April 2019 showed more than 1,700 people were held at La Palma, mostly awaiting deportation or asylum, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. La Palma is owned by CoreCivic, a private prison company. It has held ICE detainees since 2018. The facility mostly holds men, but transgender women have also been placed at the La Palma facility.
In December, a group of 53 asylum-seekers from Cuba held at La Palma penned a letter denouncing what they said is inhumane treatment, psychological torture and prolonged imprisonment.
Nationally, more than 70 groups have called on the federal government to halt all immigration court proceedings and release all people held in immigration detention centers who fall under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for being at-risk of falling severely ill from COVID-19.
According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, as of April 1, there are 1,413 cases of people who have the new coronavirus, and 65 of them are in Pinal County, where the state’s three privately-run immigration detention facilities for adults operate.
Arizona lawyers are also filing requests with ICE to have their detained clients released, Florian said.
Similar calls have been made for the release of thousands of people in Arizona prisons at risk of falling severely ill with COVID-19, though Gov. Doug Ducey said at-risk inmates will not be released, according to KJZZ.
No COVID-19 positive cases have been reported in state prisons, according to KJZZ reporter Jimmy Jenkins.
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