This story was produced in partnership with El Paso Matters
The frantic phone calls came in a cluster. In less than 24 hours multiple women reached out to me from inside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in El Paso. They expressed a mix of emotions from fear to frustration to helplessness as they talked about a COVID-19 outbreak in the El Paso processing center.
“I’m afraid. I haven’t been able to sleep.”
“Last night they mixed all in together.”
“There was no social distancing. There were 52 girls in here. There were only three empty beds.”
“They’ve had us in quarantine after quarantine after quarantine.”
The four women were upset about being moved from sleeping quarters, referred to as barracks, and mixed in with many other detainees – making it hard to socially distance.
El Paso Matters is not using their names because they fear retaliation for speaking out about conditions, including losing access to phones.
COVID-19 cases at the El Paso Processing Center continue to grow. ICE’s own tally on its web site for total confirmed detainee cases at the facility was 117 as of Sunday, including 71 people “currently under isolation and monitoring.” That’s up from 30 confirmed cases in late May.
Nationwide, ICE reports 863 confirmed cases of people in custody, with about 40% of those cases in Texas detention centers. ICE also has reported 146 COVID-19 cases at the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico, just north of El Paso.
ICE officials maintain they have been taking “important steps” to safeguard all detainees, staff and contractors and dispute the women’s claims.
“We were all bunched up.”
The women calling from inside say they were compelled to speak out after a recent shuffling of more than 50 detainees into a barracks where they slept on bunk beds.
“We were all bunched up,” said one woman. Another said, “They just made us rotate our heads. The person on top would have her head on the left. And the girl on the bottom would have her head on the right. That was their social distancing.”
What’s more, they all said a woman who was visibly sick with symptoms including a persistent cough was sleeping in the same crowded dormitory. She was later removed and sent for testing according to the women. “They just put us all in danger,” one of the women said.
They were also worried because they recognized multiple detainees who had tested positive for COVID-19 earlier were back in the same barracks with them. One of those who tested positive was among those calling from inside the detention center.
“When I turned out positive, I was told, ‘it’s confidential you cannot tell the other women.’ But I didn’t want to be selfish. They had to know so they could keep their distance from me.”
She first tested positive in late April, recovered and then tested positive again. She is worried about being reinfected by other detainees who could be carrying the virus, including new arrivals. “That’s why I’m calling you. I’m afraid I might get sick again.”
Medical experts say that reinfection is unlikely, but the women complain they can’t get information from medical personnel at the facility about the outbreak or whether they are at risk.
Mixing detainees of different security levels
Another caller inside the detention center complained about being placed in quarantine multiple times after being exposed to the virus. She said she was housed with several women who tested positive during that time. “To date I have not had one COVID test and I’ve been in quarantine four times,” she said.
The women recounted another surprising development when they were moved to different sleeping quarters this month: mixing detainees of different security levels who are identified by color-coded uniforms. Red is for the highest level, orange is a medium security level and blue is for people only detained for immigration violations.
“They had the reds mixed with the blues. The mediums with the highs. It was just crazy,” explained one woman. She said she knows this happened because she wears a red uniform. “I’m classified as high.”
According to ICE’s own policy, high or medium security-risk detainees cannot be “comingled” with the general population. The El Paso Processing Center abides by ICE’s 2011 Performance Based National Detention Standards, according to the emailed response from ICE’s public information officer.
ICE did not respond to all the specific questions about the women’s concern, including why the detainees were moved around. Instead, officials provided a general statement about policies.
“Detainees in ICE custody who test positive for COVID-19, or any other infectious disease for that matter, are cohorted separately from the rest of the detained population in accordance with CDC guidance. Statements to the contrary are false,” said Corey A. Price, field office director for Enforcement and Removal Operations El Paso.
“False allegations and disinformation repeatedly reported by various individuals, attorneys and purported immigrant advocacy groups under the guise of assisting detainees, only serves to amplify and spread misinformation that incites unnecessary fear throughout our communities and among detainees in ICE custody,” he said.
Detainee says ICE is lying
An El Paso immigration attorney pushed back on Price’s suggestion that the detainees were making up details about their conditions.
“I would say that’s an irresponsible attitude to have because we know that testing people who are positive is objectively verifiable, so if there are people who are crying wolf, there’s a way to find out who is crying wolf and who isn’t if they’re sick,” immigration attorney Casey Antonio Williams said.
He represents five women in the El Paso Processing Center who have tested positive for COVID-19. He verified their test results with medical personnel at the facility.
He said one of his clients who was hospitalized was then sent back to detention.
“There’s no justification to put somebody at risk like that when you know that you’ve already lost control of the health and safety of the people you are taking care of,” Williams said.
ICE said it is using alternatives to detention to reduce the detainee population during the pandemic.
“As of June 15, 2020, the El Paso Processing Center is below 70% capacity in order to allow for social distancing” said to a statement from ICE. The El Paso Processing Center’s capacity is 800 people, according to an ICE spokesperson.
When one of the women at the detention center called me again, I shared with her the ICE official’s response, including referring to the women’s allegations as “false and misinformation.” I told her ICE denied it is mixing women who have tested positive with other detainees.
“That’s a lie,” she quickly answered, adding the detention facility doctor told her, “The positives and negatives will have to be together. And you will have to overcome this disease.’”
All of the other women also said the doctor informed them they would have to learn to live with the virus and take steps to protect themselves.
“We can’t take steps. We don’t have enough space,” said one of the women.
Along with the fear of being infected while locked up, there’s the heartache.
“We all want to go home. We all have children. We all have families we all want to go home to. I understand it’s procedure and it takes time but with this now, it’s sad, it really is,” one woman said.
Another woman with a 4-year-old son who is a U.S. citizen said tearfully, “He needs his mother, alive.” She called COVID outbreak in the detention center a “ticking time bomb.”
Another detainee speaks out
A few days later I heard from a fifth woman who had just been released from the El Paso Processing Center. After seven months in detention she was looking forward to being reunited with her young child. She doesn’t want her name used because she fears it will jeopardize her case.
“They don’t protect us,” she said about the detention officers.
She described the same conditions inside the El Paso Processing Center as the other women, including the lack of social distancing. “They don’t have control inside like they say they do. They move people around,” she said of ICE.
I told her an ICE official called the women’s claims “false allegations and misinformation.”
“I don’t gain anything by lying. I’m out. My concern is for the other women who remain behind in the detention center without protection,” she said. “It’s an injustice.”