Yanely Fernandez recalled the June night when her cellmate Yarjelis Chiquinquirá Madueño Dávila passed out in her arms.
“That night, the smell was really strong. They had locked us. Yarjelis began to feel really bad, other girls too, with headaches and a lot of nausea. And I started to press the emergency button to call an officer,” Fernandez said. “Right there, Yarjelis fainted.”
For three months, Fernandez, 34, and Madueño Dávila, 27, shared a two-bed cell inside the Eloy Detention Center, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility that holds asylum-seekers and adult men and women in deportation proceedings.
Both women left their home countries fleeing governments that systematically suppress dissent: Fernandez left Cuba, Madueño Dávila left Venezuela.
In a phone interview, Fernandez told Arizona Mirror that fumes have been making women detained at Eloy sick with headaches and nausea for weeks. The night Madueño Dávila fainted was around June 16, Fernandez said. Detention center staff told detainees the fumes were coming from a power generator, she said.
Fernandez spent six months at the Eloy facility. She was released on June 22 and is living in Florida.
On June 27, Fernandez spoke with Madueño Davila, who told her the day before she again fell ill from inhaling fumes.
“She felt very dizzy because the smell of gas again started to come out of the air ducts. She said she couldn’t tell anyone because her cellmate usually works in the laundry room and she wasn’t there. She told me she stayed there, laying down, until the strong smell started fading,” Fernandez said. “This is still happening, affecting not just her, but other detainees. They get nausea and headaches.”
Those in charge at the Eloy facility, she added, are aware of the problem.
“They know, but simply do nothing,” Fernandez said. “The air is getting trapped inside the cells. It’s very dangerous.”
The Eloy facility is managed by CoreCivic, a private prison company.
In a statement, CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist denied there is an issue with potentially hazardous fumes inside the Eloy facility.
“There is not currently nor has there been a gas leak at Eloy Detention Center,” she said in an email. “We received a report of an exhaust smell coming from the generator last month and maintenance immediately addressed the issue.”
Gilchrist didn’t answer inquiries on when the problem with the smell from the generator was resolved.
“We are not aware of reports of nausea, headaches or an individual passing out,” she added.
Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe, an ICE spokeswoman, also said the agency has no records of reported hazardous gases or fumes.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) takes the health and safety of its detained population and facility staff very seriously,” Pitts O’Keefe said in an email. “There is no gas leak at the facility and there are no maintenance records filed at the facility indicating a gas leak.”
She declined to comment on Madueño Dávila’s medical conditions because ICE can’t “disclose details of an detainee’s medical records absent a signed privacy waiver.”
“However, any detainees requesting a medical appointment for any reason are provided and receive immediate medical attention and are evaluated as appropriate,” she said.
Fernandez said when Madueño Dávila fainted, she laid her on the floor. Medical staff responded and helped her get on her feet, and they took her to a room outside of their detention pod. Later that night, she returned to the cell, Fernandez said. The power generator was turned off.
ICE detention centers ‘a death sentence’ for some
Madueño Dávila has been in detention since November. Her health is already a point of concern amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has quickly spread inside of Eloy. She is one of 13 plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed June 8. She is considered a vulnerable population at high risk of falling severely ill from COVID-19 under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
The lawsuit states the migrants held at Eloy and at the nearby La Palma Correctional Center are “trapped in what are essentially tinderboxes on the verge of an explosion.”
Madueño Dávila has hyperthyroidism, obesity and was diagnosed recently with a small brain tumor that causes frequent headaches and visual changes, according to the lawsuit.
“Ms. Madueño Dávila needs to be evaluated by an endocrinologist and a neurosurgeon to discuss treatment for her tumor, but this treatment will likely be delayed due to COVID-19,” the complaint states.
The lawsuit was filed by the Florence Immigrants and Refugee Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. They argue the detention of the 13 migrants is unlawful and request their release.
“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.
Rocío Castañeda, an attorney with the Florence Project, said Madueño Dávila’s experience in detention and similar accounts of inadequate healthcare and sanitation are alarming.
“We are very alarmed by the accounts that we hear from our clients coming out of Eloy, including what they describe is a strong odor of gas and the drainage system not working. We have many clients with respiratory problems,” Castañeda said. “These accounts that we are hearing from women are very concerning. What we are hearing from clients is that conditions are getting worse.”
Family: ‘They’re poisoning them’
For years, former detainees and local groups like Trans Queer Pueblo and Puente Human Rights Movement have insisted ICE is unable to properly meet the medical and mental health needs of migrants in detention centers. Their calls for the release of people detained by ICE have grown more urgent since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Nationally, the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, the National Immigrant Justice Center and Detention Watch Network have documented what they call systemic problems with medical care at ICE detention centers.
A DHS report from March 2019 released in December 2019 detailed allegations from an ICE whistleblower on inadequate medical and mental health care and oversight at the agency’s detention centers.
Four Arizona members of Congress — Reps. Ruben Gallego, Raul Grijalva, Ann Kirkpatrick and Greg Stanton, all Democrats — sent a letter to ICE and DHS leadership on May 26 expressing deep concern over accounts of access to immigration hearings denied and unsanitary and unsafe conditions of detention in three ICE facilities.
Kirkpatrick said in a June 26 press release that ICE’s response to the letter was inadequate.
“I have worked with my Congressional colleagues to formally address these concerns with ICE, and we have largely been ignored,” she said in the statement. “It’s becoming increasingly alarming and we need people to know what is happening. We must demand more accountability and oversight at these facilities, ICE must immediately investigate the complaints and comply with CDC guidelines, or people will die in these facilities.”
Yadira Speck, a family member of Madueño Dávila, said she’s afraid for her family in ICE detention. Her two nephews, one of whom is Madueño Dávila’s husband, are also detained at La Palma. Speck worries about the women in Eloy who said they are being subjected to toxic fumes in the midst of a pandemic caused by a virus that targets the respiratory system.
“What they are doing is poisoning them,” Speck said. “I’m not going to say that this is on purpose, but this is huge negligence.”