From the moment officers woke him at 4 a.m. each day, Pedro Iglesias Tamayo’s mind was consumed by the same question: Would the coronavirus arrive at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center today?
He would watch officers clock in and out, walking through the barbed-wire and chain-link fences surrounding the facility, about a three-hour drive from one of the nation’s most significant outbreaks, New Orleans, and wonder whether one of them had already carried the virus inside.
During his shifts in the kitchen, he and other detainees would speak about the supervisor who kept coughing. Between meals, it’s Iglesias’ job to wipe down the tables where detainees eat. He wished he had disinfectant to clean with, but all the officers gave him was a cloth that he dampens with water.
He said he left Cuba for the United States last year in the wake of government harassment for refusing to participate in Communist Party activities. Ever since, he’s lived here, with 13 other men in a small, fluorescent-lit pod equipped with two toilets, two sinks and two shower stalls.
Inside Pine Prairie, Iglesias said, detainees go without hand sanitizer or gloves. Some men have figured out a way to fashion masks out of their own socks. Iglesias and other detainees said officers haven’t provided any guidance or notification about the virus.
So Iglesias heeds the advice of medical experts on Telemundo and CNN: He uses the small bar of soap he’s allotted each week to wash his hands between meals and outings into the yard. And he waits for the people who control his life to do something.
“There’s this global pandemic that’s taking people’s lives,” the 31-year-old said, “and they have us here trapped like animals.”
On Friday, he got the answer to the question that had gripped him every day: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that a 52-year-old detainee inside Pine Prairie had tested positive for the virus. ICE said he’d been released from the nearby Oakdale federal prison, where five inmates have died from the coronavirus. In a statement, ICE said no one at Pine Prairie was exposed to the detainee, who has been held in medical isolation since his arrival.
Detention numbers have soared under the Trump administration. It has sent far more asylum seekers into detention than ever before, and once they’re in custody, the administration has almost eliminated parole, meaning greater numbers are detained for extended periods. Now, with the pandemic raging, nearly 36,000 immigrants, their families and government officials are staring down the consequences of those policies.
Human rights organizations, immigrant rights advocates and a former acting ICE director worry that a massive outbreak in detention facilities will further overwhelm an already-strained health care system and put lives at risk.
Dr. Ranit Mishori, a senior medical adviser for the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights, has studied migrant health for the past two decades.
“Imagine when you don’t have those options to protect yourself, when you live with other people in close proximity, in dorm-like facilities, sharing bathrooms with poor access to soap and hand sanitizer,” Mishori, who is also a family medicine professor at Georgetown University’s School of Medicine, said in a call with reporters. “This is exactly the setup that’s ideal for an infectious disease to spread.”
The only way to avoid a massive outbreak, Mishori said, is to release detainees. “Acting now will save lives,” she added. “Acting late will lead to death.”
On March 13, ICE canceled all social visits at detention centers and later announced it would scale back arrests. Two days later, it announced that detainees with respiratory symptoms or who are at high risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria, were being housed separately from the general population. Newly arrived detainees are also being screened and isolated if they have a fever or respiratory distress. Today, ICE announced that it had released 160 detainees who it had determined were “vulnerable.”
But inside facilities, detainees and their families and attorneys said, ICE has done little to protect those in its charge. Detainees live and sleep in cramped quarters where social distancing is impossible. They are still being shuffled between detention centers. Many officers go to work without gloves or masks. At some facilities, such as the Morrow County Correctional Facility in Ohio, Bergen County Jail in New Jersey and South Louisiana ICE Processing Center, detainees report that they lack soap or are provided only with what sources described as watered-down liquid hand soap.
An ICE spokesperson said detainees are provided with soap for the shower and hand soap to wash their hands. Officials from Bergen and Morrow counties said these allegations are false.
Lawyers across the country have been furiously trying to get their clients released. John Sandweg, the former acting ICE director under President Barack Obama and now a lawyer in private practice, has called for ICE to release all nonviolent detainees on bond or with ankle monitors.
Because risk assessments are conducted when immigrants first enter ICE custody, the agency already knows which detainees would pose a low flight risk if released.
“It makes little to no sense to me,” he told reporters last week, “why the administration does not just take the next step.”
In the meantime, fear has bubbled over into direct conflict inside ICE facilities as the first detainees and ICE employees tested positive for COVID-19. The first case, announced March 24, was a detainee at the Bergen County Jail. Two days later, a second detainee tested positive in Essex County, New Jersey. The following week, three other detainee cases emerged in New Jersey, as well as another at the La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona. By Friday, two more cases had been reported, one at a Pennsylvania facility and the other at Pine Prairie. As of April 4, ICE had reported 13 detainees had tested positive.
Osmany Espinosa called Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting moments after seeing one of these major clashes March 24. Through the glass partition of his bunker at Pine Prairie, he watched as guards in full riot gear suddenly stormed a nearby pod – known as Bravo Delta – and doused a group of men with pepper spray. Espinosa and detainees in his room yelled at the officers: “Abusers! Stop hurting them! This is abuse!” To silence them, guards shut the air vent that connects his bunker to the corridor outside, Espinosa said.
An ICE spokesperson later said seven detainees had become “disruptive and confrontational” with staff as they were escorted to the yard.
Days later, Espinosa said, brown stains left by the pepper spray remained on the walls.
It was one of at least four clashes between guards and detainees that ended with the use of pepper spray at ICE detention facilities run by The GEO Group, one of the nation’s largest private prison contractors. The company has come under intense scrutiny, through lawsuits and federal investigations, over alleged mistreatment of detainees. The company did not respond to requests to comment for this story.
“It’s not just coronavirus affecting us,” Espinosa said. “We’re also being intimidated and mistreated.”
Consequences of mass detention
Since President Donald Trump took office, the number of detained immigrants has soared. Before then, border agents frequently allowed asylum seekers to go free while they awaited their appearance in court, a wait that often takes months or years. Trump derided this policy as “catch and release” and sought to end it.
As a result, the number of immigrants in ICE facilities has boomed during his tenure, from 37,931 in 2017 to 50,922 in 2019, according to agency statistics.
Pine Prairie has a maximum capacity of 1,094, nearly as large as the town population of Pine Prairie. The facility consists of five housing units, which contain a mix of small and large dorms, some of which can hold up to 70 people, in a state where gatherings larger than 10 people are now banned. Detainees live under the stark glare of fluorescent lights that officers flip on around 9 a.m. They sleep in bunk beds narrower than twin-sized mattresses.
They pass the time playing board games and talking to loved ones on tablets officers let them keep in the bunkers. Reveal spoke with four detainees at Pine Prairie and family members who had been in regular communication with another three. Together, they painted a picture of the uncertainty and desperation gripping detainees and their loved ones nearly four weeks into the U.S. pandemic. They fear it’s only a matter of time before a COVID-19 outbreak sweeps through Pine Prairie.
Manuel Rodriguez Ruiz is the kind of immigrant who likely wouldn’t have been detained before the Trump era. He sought asylum at a port of entry, claiming he’d faced persecution at the hands of Cuba’s communist government. He has spent the last nine months in Pine Prairie as his immigration case slogs through court.
About two weeks ago, he said, officers distributed some face masks to his pod, but they broke after a few days. The gesture did little to assuage anxiety, Rodriguez said. Detainees in his pod barely sleep. Some nights, Rodriguez stares up at the bunk bed mattress above him, hoping that a little sleep will come before his 2 a.m. shift preparing breakfast.
On a recent Saturday, Rodriguez said, an officer entered the kitchen and was coughing so much that he could barely breathe. Eventually, the officer left.
Rodriguez, who has asthma, used to rely on the mayonnaise, saltine crackers and Maruchan instant soups sold at the commissary as a respite from the bland oatmeal, cereals, rice and potatoes served in the kitchen. But in recent weeks, he’s stopped buying them.
“Those products come from the outside, and we don’t know whether they’re clean or not,” he said. “We’re scared that’s a way of the virus getting inside. There are lots of people who don’t buy from the commissary anymore for that reason.”
To distract himself from the chaos around him, Rodriguez tries to find solace in daily chats with his girlfriend in Florida through a video chat app sardonically called GettingOut.
“This isn’t about liberty anymore. This is about our health and our lives,” he said. “If people on the outside are getting sick, can you imagine what it will be like in here?”
Dwindling likelihood of parole
Like many others at Pine Prairie, Rodriguez has requested parole, a mechanism through which asylum seekers can be released while they await a decision on their case. ICE has denied his requests multiple times for a variety of reasons, Rodriguez said. On at least two occasions, documents show, ICE said his request was denied because he had already previously requested parole.
Such denials have helped fuel ICE’s swelling detention population in recent years.
In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Department of Homeland Security for what it called the “arbitrary detention” of asylum seekers through parole denials. The lawsuit identified ICE offices covering seven states where parole grant rates had dropped from 95% in 2013 to nearly zero under the Trump administration. A federal judge in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., sided with the ACLU and in July 2018 ordered ICE to comply with the agency’s own directive, which allows officers to grant parole for a number of reasons, such as when an asylum seeker doesn’t pose a flight risk or has been diagnosed with a serious medical condition.
In May, the Southern Poverty Law Center and ACLU in Louisiana sued the Department of Homeland Security after it discovered that the New Orleans ICE office, which handles parole requests for Louisiana and four other states, had granted parole in just two of the 130 requests it received in 2018. The low numbers continued into 2019: In December, the office declined 98% of parole requests.
In this case, too, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ordered the New Orleans ICE office to comply with the agency’s parole guidelines, and the grant rate has improved since then, reaching 11% for new requests in March.
Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed an emergency motion that calls for the immediate release of asylum seekers held in ICE custody to mitigate the risk of coronavirus exposure.
Nationwide, lawyers are pleading one by one for their clients to be paroled. While a judge in New Jersey ordered 10 at-risk detainees released from county jails following an outbreak there, several lawyers said they haven’t had such luck.
“The message that we have gotten back is ICE is not budging on this,” said Jessica Shulruff Schneider, detention program director at Americans for Immigrant Justice, based in Miami. “They’re not going to be releasing individuals just as a result of COVID-19.”
Attorney Allegra Love, director of the legal nonprofit Santa Fe Dreamers Project, said lawyers in her network have filed more than 100 parole requests. Many have already been denied. “This is going to end in wrongful death suits,” she said.
Families in crisis
On Facebook groups and WhatsApp chats, detainees’ family members exchange news and rumors about the virus, the pace of their messages accelerating as the national death toll continues to climb.
One WhatsApp group, called Louisiana
“God protect all of them,” one woman from Ciego de Avila, Cuba, posted to the Spanish-language Facebook group “Liberty for the Cuban detainees in Louisiana.” She included video of a recorded message from four detainees at Pine Prairie. “Everyone here is terrorized,” one says.
Iglesias’ mother, Maria Antonia, who asked that Reveal not use her last name, is among the nearly 4,000 members of this Facebook group. She lives in Havana and cares for her 13-year-old grandchild, Iglesias’ son. She last saw Iglesias last February, before he boarded a raft to Mexico to begin his trek to an international bridge near McAllen, Texas, to seek asylum. She doesn’t understand how someone who came to seek refuge in the U.S. ended up imprisoned for a year. “I don’t have anyone who can explain to me what is going on.”
Now she sees him on her phone through video chats a few times a week, his face pixelated and backlit by the fluorescent lights behind him.
Last month, he said he was feeling ill. Maria Antonia reassured him that it was just anxiety.
But she finds it harder and harder to comfort him. In a recent call, Iglesias asked her, “What are we going to do?”
She didn’t have an answer.
UPDATE, April 7, 2020: This story has been updated with a figure from ICE on how many detainees it has released.
Reporters Patrick Michels and Aura Bogado contributed to this story. It was edited by Andrew Donohue and Esther Kaplan and copy edited by Nikki Frick.