The Eloy Detention Center, a privately run ICE immigrant detention facility, is shown here on Friday, April 10, 2020. Photo by Nicole Neri | Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting
On June 11, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported 22 positive cases of COVID-19 at the Eloy Detention Center in Pinal County. Four days later, that number jumped 460% to 123 confirmed cases, ICE reported Monday.
The ICE facility, operated by the private prison company CoreCivic, holds men and women who are seeking asylum or face deportation for civil immigration infractions like having arrived in the country without authorization or for criminal violations to immigration laws.
Among those detained in that facility is Shakira Najera Chilel, a transgender woman who since September has experienced debilitating health problems. She, like many others detained at ICE facilities before her, told Arizona Mirror in May she has not received meaningful treatment for her gastrointestinal condition. The prospect of the COVID-19 pandemic spreading in the ICE detention center where she thinks the wellbeing of her and others is overlooked adds to her worries.
ICE spokesman Yasmeen Pitts O’keefe said in an email that the surge in COVID-19 cases at Eloy is due to increased testing.
“ICE health care workers at the Eloy Detention Center last week tested several detainees as part of continuing efforts to test those who are asymptomatic and did not show symptoms of COVID-19. As a result of these increased efforts, more cases have been identified,” she said on Monday. “Additionally, the Eloy Detention Center has also restricted intake for all new admissions to the facility to further protect those in custody.”
Between June 11 and June 15, the total COVID-19 positive cases reported at ICE facilities nationally increased by 206 — meaning that the new Eloy cases alone accounted for nearly half of the national case rise.
Letters and lawsuits call for release of migrants in AZ immigration centers
The first COVID-19 positive case in an ICE facility in Arizona was reported in early April at the La Palma Correctional Center, which is adjacent to the Eloy facility.
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 81 detainees test positive for COVID-19 as of June 15.
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.
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