COVID-19 compounds precarious conditions for trans woman in ICE detention

By: - June 12, 2020 1:25 pm

Immigration detainees at the Eloy federal contract prison. Photo by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Shortly after Shakira Najera Chilel arrived at the Eloy Immigration Detention Center in September 2019, she began to have stomach problems. Since then, the 29-year-old asylum seeker’s gastrointestinal condition has turned chronic.

Najera Chilel compared the meals inside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility to “vomited dog food.” She’s been on antibiotics and other medicine taking up to 10 pills daily. An endoscopic exam for her keeps getting pushed back, she told Arizona Mirror in late May. 

Her debilitating health adds to her worries. The sexual violence and persecution Najera Chilel faced as a transgender woman in her native Guatemala and Mexico, where she lived for a few years before fleeing for the U.S., haunt her. That is now compounded with a fear of falling severely ill with the coronavirus, as the COVID-19 pandemic quickly spreads inside immigration detention centers. 

Her desperation reached a breaking point in mid-May, when she told a facility medical worker that she was going to throw herself out a window when she had the opportunity. She was placed in solitary confinement, which has been a condemned practice inside ICE facilities for its apparent punitive, arbitrary and excessive use

Najera Chilel said her meals in that segregated cell were wrapped in paper. She couldn’t read her books. She couldn’t wash her mouth. She had no one to talk to, she said. Two guards watched over her. 

“To me, it makes no sense. How is this a way to help?” Najera Chilel said in Spanish. “Instead of helping you, they are torturing you even more.”

She prayed to God for strength, something she’s done many times in her life when she’s been on the receiving end of violence and assault. 

“I have been strong in the face of adversity, and I have to still do it,” Najera Chilel said. “I was asking God to help me, to give me more strength. In Guatemala, I’ve suffered so many things, and I have gotten over them. 

“I’ve been a strong woman, the strongest that there is, even stronger than a church pillar.” 

Advocates with Trans Queer Pueblo, a group advocating for LGBTQ migrants, are asking for ICE to release Najera Chilel, along with all migrants in ICE detention. Her attorneys have submitted a request with ICE to consider her for release. 

In a statement, ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’keefe said Najera Chilel was allowed into the U.S. through a Nogales port of entry. 

“Relevant checks reveal she is a two-time deported alien, with the most recent deportation in March 2018,” she said. “Ms. Najera-Chilel will remain in ICE custody pending the outcome of her immigration case.”

The week that Najera Chilel spoke with the Mirror, the Eloy facility registered its first positive case of COVID-19 among its detainees. The phone she spoke on wasn’t wiped between uses. She said it is impossible to social distance in her detention pod, and the facility agents and guards aren’t adhering to precautions, meaning they could bring the virus from the outside community into the ICE facility. 

The facility had 22 confirmed cases as of June 11, according to ICE. 

In total, Arizona immigration detention centers – all of which are in Pinal County – have registered 124 cases of COVID-19. The first case was reported in early April at the La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy. 

Since then, dozens of detainees at La Palma have penned three letters, published by Trans Queer Pueblo, dennouncing the conditions of detention in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. In an April 16 letter, Joel Edgardo Cornejo claimed he was struck with paintballs and pepper gas was used in his pod after a group conducted a strike over the protest of sick detainees.  

In another April 30 missive, 32 detainees who have conditions that put them at high risk of falling severely ill from COVID-19 said they “have a deep fear of becoming infected and dying far from our families” and asked to be released from detention. 

In a May 18 letter, more than 25 detainees denounced lax measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside La Palma. “There are 120 of us in a small space and that is how the pandemic propagates faster,” they wrote. “The entrance of personnel and other workers is the biggest source of danger of it entering the tank.” 

That facility has seen a total of 78 detainees test positive for COVID-19.

In a federal lawsuit filed June 8, attorneys for 13 detainees at Eloy and La Palma who are considered vulnerable populations under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines said these migrants are “trapped in what are essentially tinderboxes on the verge of an explosion.”

While ICE said it has measures in place at its detention center to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the lawsuit claims through accounts from those in detention that the agency isn’t “actually and consistently implementing the measures it claims to be taking.” 

“Detainees continue to report significant delays in receiving medical attention, inadequate cleaning and access to cleaning and hygiene supplies, an inability to socially distance, and a lack of verbal instructions on basic preventative measures, such as how to properly wear masks and other PPE,” the complaint states. 

The lawsuit, filed by the Florence Immigrants and Refugee Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, asks a federal judge to release the 13 detainees, who are in detention for civil federal immigration law violations and have pending claims for asylum.

“In this action, they ask the Court to do what numerous courts have already done: release them, so their civil detention does not become a death sentence,” the complaint states.

Through lawsuits and ICE’s own review, migrants have been released from detention since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The population in ICE detention centers has significantly decreased: as of June 6, there are 24,713 people detained by ICE nationwide, compared to 55,654 in July 2019.

Najera Chilel has hope she can continue pursuing her asylum claim from outside of detention. She describes herself as an active woman.

“I’m a very joyful girl, very dynamic, fun. Everywhere I go, I smile at everyone, even if you are angry – that negativity, I turn it into something positive,” she said. “I am the life of the party.” 

When she’s released from detention, and if she is allowed a chance at a new life in the U.S., Najera Chilel said she wants to open her own restaurant to serve Guatemalan food. 

But the 10 months she has spent in detention has taken a toll on her. The trauma she’s experienced in her life comes up, and she has no one to talk to. 

“This affects me to be waiting for so much time. Everything starts to come up. Also, the pandemic spoils my mind, my thoughts,” she said. 

She said she worries she won’t come out of immigration detention alive, like other migrant trans women

“A lot of times I think … I don’t know if, in reality, I’ll get out alive of this place or if I’ll return inside a coffin to Guatemala, dead,” she said. “That’s why I left my country for Mexico. I left for an opportunity to arrive here in the United States, to knock on its doors for help, not because of economic reasons, but because of my gender identity.”

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for education, immigration, political, and public safety reporting and Spanish-language news and feature reporting. Laura worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.