EL PASO, Texas — The letters pouring out from El Paso’s ICE immigration detention facility all begin the same way: “To Whom It May Concern.”
Open letters, they are sent to the world at large, scrawled in careful cursive with the hope of finding someone who cares. They often end similarly too: ‘I’m afraid I’m going to die in here.’
The authors of these letters plead that their lives are at stake, and demand accountability for the unrelenting coronavirus outbreak within the facility.
“We are not criminals,” wrote Sandra, a 50-year-old Mexican woman with underlying health conditions. She has already had COVID-19 once and fears she’ll get it again.
“Please, somebody take the initiative and help us before it is too late,” she wrote in her letter.
El Paso Matters generally does not identify the full names of asylum seekers and others detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to protect them from potential retribution.
Among the 17 letters received so far by El Paso Matters, all but one of the writers has already gotten COVID-19 since being held in ICE detention, and many expressed fears of getting it a second time. As of Nov. 19, the El Paso Service Processing Center reports 42 active COVID-19 cases among detainees, and 292 total cases since the beginning of the pandemic.
A federal judge ordered ICE to consider releasing all detained immigrants who are at higher risk of complications from COVID-19 in an April ruling, saying that ICE had shown “medical indifference” in their handling of the initial months of the pandemic.
Seeking to be heard
Lisbet, a Cuban woman currently detained at the El Paso facility, explained how the group of detainees decided to launch a letter-writing campaign.
“All of us got together because we’re all in the same situation. We’ve all been neglected and ignored,” she said.
Lisbet and another detainee, Arianna, had also attempted to hunger strike in order to protest conditions within the facility, but said they stopped after being threatened by guards.
“They told us no matter what you do, you’re not going to get the attention you’re asking for. And they threatened (to deport us), to write us up, and to put us in isolation,” Lisbet said.
Marysol Castro, a staff attorney with Diocesan Migrant and Refugees Services, represents detainees at El Paso Service Processing Center. She said that both the attempted hunger strike and the letter writing campaign are intended to draw attention to the dire situation within the facility.
“It’s a way for them to express their desperation,” Castro said. “They’re very helpless, they’re not being heard, the guards aren’t paying attention to them, they’re being medically neglected and they’re all in fear.”
A recent study found that between April and August, the COVID-19 case rate was 13 times higher among ICE detainees than it was among the general population of the United States. These rates are far higher than at U.S. federal and state prisons, which were 5.5 times higher than the general population between March and June.
Among the letters sent by women at the El Paso facility, common complaints include: guards bringing COVID-19 into the facility, detainees who tested positive not being quarantined for long enough, guards working while exhibiting obvious symptoms of COVID-19, guards not wearing personal protective equipment, lack of hygiene in the facility, lack of social distancing, and extreme medical neglect.
Detainees described situations of severe and urgent medical distress that went ignored by guards. In a telephone interview with El Paso Matters, Lisbet recalled a situation where one sick detainee in her barracks was struggling to breathe, and asked the guard if she could see a doctor. The guard said she’d have to wait to sign up the following morning to make an appointment.
It is unknown how many guards at the El Paso detention facility have contracted COVID-19 throughout the pandemic.
ICE does not include contract workers in their employee COVID-19 case counts, and there are nearly 600 contract employees at the El Paso ICE facility. The contracted company, Global Precision Systems, has not responded to repeated requests for the current and total number of COVID-19 cases among staff at El Paso Service Processing Center.
ICE, contractor deny mistreatment allegations
In a statement, Global Precision Systems said the allegations made in the letters “are categorically false. GPS employees abide by the highest professional standards and any allegation of misconduct is taken seriously and investigated.”
GPS said employees receive a COVID-19 screening, including temperature check, before entering the workplace, and said all employees wear PPE in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. They said that “detainees at the El Paso Processing Center absolutely have access to medical care and resources.”
Leticia Zamarripa, West Texas spokesperson for ICE, said the health and safety of detainees is one of the agency’s top priorities.
“ICE continues to incorporate CDC’s COVID-19 guidance, which is built upon the already established infectious disease monitoring and management protocols currently in use by the agency. In addition, ICE is actively working with state and local health partners to determine if any detainee requires additional testing or monitoring to combat the spread of the virus,” she said.
Zamarripa also said that COVID positive detainees “receive appropriate medical care to manage the disease,” and discussed the “comprehensive protocols” in place for both staff and patients, including “appropriate use of personal protective equipment” in order to control the spread of the virus.
Common concerns in the letters
Twelve different detainee letters included observations of guards not wearing adequate PPE while in close proximity with detainees.
“In this detention center, the necessary precaution measures meant to protect us are not observed. The officers that supervise us do not always use gloves or facemasks when they approach us or when they are touching our belongings,” said Yailin, one of the letter writers.
Ten letters express concern that guards are bringing COVID-19 into the facility, and 12 of the letters say that sick detainees are not being quarantined for sufficient time after testing positive.
“Although I have not had contact with the exterior, I have been infected. In other words, this virus was brought to the processing center by the same officers that attend us or by new detainees who were not isolated enough time,” Arianna said in her letter.
Thirteen of the letters indicate fear that the author’s life is in danger.
“I was in perfect health and due to the irresponsibility of ICE they moved us to a barrack with women infected with COVID-19, and at the moment I am feeling sick even though I informed (them) that I am a chronic asthmatic and also have two fissures in my heart for which they have to treat me every day, that is why I am at high risk. They did not care about putting my health at risk,” said Blanca, another detainee, in her letter.
Castro said that prior to the pandemic, in cases of illness, detainees would often be released on humanitarian parole right away. “As long as I’ve been an immigration attorney, I’ve never seen something like this. The fact now that there’s so many of them and all at once, and all being denied and denied and denied, that’s completely new,” she said.
In what Castro described as an “amazing” turn of events, Arianna won her asylum case on Nov. 19, and was released from ICE custody the following day. But the remainder of the letter writers have yet to see relief.
Ketisleidy, the one letter writer who hasn’t yet gotten COVID-19, said the psychological trauma of trying to avoid getting the virus is unbearable.
“I know that we are migrants and that to ICE our lives are worthless. However, we are people with families and we are humans and we are suffering day after day,” she said. “Please, I need someone to help us and find a way to make this center not ignore COVID-19.”
Photo gallery below contains some of the letters received. Translations by Helen Unger Clark.
The cover illustration is a collage of detainee letters, by René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters