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08 May 2020 – United States

The Otay Mesa Detention Center, operated by the private prison company CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America), where the first Covid-19 fatality among US immigration detainees had been detained.
The Otay Mesa Detention Center, operated by the private prison company CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America), where the first Covid-19 fatality among US immigration detainees had been detained.

Health officials in the state of California announced the first COVID-19 fatality of an immigration detainee on 7 May. The person had been detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, which is operated by the prison prison company CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America) in San Diego. The ACLU, in a tweet, said: “The first confirmed death of someone in @ICEgov detention from COVID-19 was predictable and preventable. The administration’s obsession with incarcerating people was dangerous before COVID-19. Now, it is a death sentence.”

According to Al Jazeera (7 May): “A 57-year-old man, who was held at the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego before being hospitalised in late April, died on Wednesday. … The Otay Mesa facility near the US-Mexico border can hold up to nearly 2,000 ICE detainees and US Marshals Service inmates. It reported its first positive case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, in late March. The centre now has more infections – 132 – than any other centre in the country, according to ICE. Overall, more than 700 immigrants in the ICE custody have tested positive for the virus out of about 1,400 who have been tested nationally.”

The report adds: “While ICE has dialled back arrest operations and agreed to review cases of some at-risk immigrants in custody, it still has tens of thousands in detention and is proceeding with deportation flights. … Lawyers have filed lawsuits seeking parole for many detainees and so far, ICE said, nearly 200 have been released after court orders and most of them had criminal charges or convictions.”

Despite evidence that people deported from the US are testing positive for Covid-19 upon arrival in their home countries (see 22 April update below), the United States has refused to halt many deportation measures. The Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) has reported that ICE Air continues to deport thousands of migrants held in detention centres throughout the United States, and as those facilities have become hotspots for Covid-19 outbreaks, this means the United States is exporting the virus to countries throughout the region.

According to the Center for Migration Studies, the number of migrants in ICE detention facilities dropped from 38,058 on 21 March 2020 to 29,675 on 25 April. During a webinar on 6 May organized by the Center for Migration Studies, Hiroko Kusuda (Clinic Professor, Loyola University) referred to the immigration detention system as a “deportation machine.”

Since the Trump administration declared a national emergency on 13 March in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, one ICE Air contractor has reportedly undertaken at least 72 deportation flights to 11 Latin American and Carribean countries. The CEPR also reported that from 15 March to 24 April 2020, ICE Air appears to have made 21 deportation flights to Guatemala, 18 to Honduras, 12 to El Salvador, six to Brazil, three each to Nicaragua, Ecuador, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and one each to Colombia and Jamaica.

Most of the flights seem to have departed from two airports: Brownsville, Texas and Alexandria, Louisiana. The CEPR reported that the Alexandria ICE staging facility, run by a private company (GEO Group), has been particularly hard hit by Covid-19, as at least 11 employees have tested positive for the disease. One of the planes carrying around 40 confirmed Covid-19 cases to Guatemala departed from the Alexandria airport. The Guatemalan government has estimated that around 20 percent of the country’s Covid-19 cases are recently returned immigrants.

In addition, ICE has reportedly refused to test detainees prior to deportations, although officials have recently indicated they would begin partial testing. According to the Washington Post, ICE “is unlikely to administer tests to every deportee unless foreign governments make that a condition for taking people back.”

According to the Immigration Campaign director at the Mississippi Center for Justice Amelia S. McGowan, the detention conditions in ICE facilities are dangerous in times of a pandemic, given “the overcrowding, the regular transfers of detained people and the severely limited access to cleaning and hygiene products.” Moreover, some guards were reportedly told not to wear mask, to avoid scaring the detainees.