EXCLUSIVE: Migrants who survived COVID-19 allege discrimination at ICE detention facility in New Mexico

Border Report

Men want to be deported, but they say their own country doesn't want them back and the U.S. is obliging

LAS CRUCES, New Mexico (Border Report) — Several Guatemalans say the U.S. is arbitrarily prolonging their stay at a New Mexico detention facility, months after they tested positive for COVID-19.

The detainees told Border Report they’ve given up any claims to stay in the country so they can be reunited with their families in Central America and find a way to provide for them economically.

However, for reasons they say have not clearly been explained to them, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has refused to put them on a plane back home. Some of them say they were given final deportation orders months ago.

“I saw people brought in two or three weeks ago and they’re gone now. I’ve been here for six months,” said “Antonio,” a Guatemalan being held at the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M. “When I ask the guards they say, ‘next week, don’t worry.’ But they’ve been telling me that for a month.”

Antonio, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he tested positive for COVID-19 in May and was cleared after a month in isolation. He says he’s heard from other detainees that their own government doesn’t want them back.

AVID volunteer Margaret Brown Vega talks about the ordeal of a group of men from Guatemala held at the Otero County Processing Center. (Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

Late in April, Guatemala stopped accepting flights of deported countrymen from the United States after some of them came in sick and exacerbated that nation’s coronavirus situation. The flights resumed in June.

“We are being discriminated because we tested positive. We don’t want asylum, we don’t want anything. We just want to be deported as soon as possible,” said Antonio, a father of two. He said he caught the coronavirus at the detention center and is afraid of catching other infectious diseases there.

Migrant advocates say Guatemalans not only endured the harmful effects of the disease, but also the trauma of prolonged incarceration with no hope of staying in the United States.

“There’s no relief for them. They’re just stuck in limbo and they’re getting desperate,” said Margaret Brown Vega, a volunteer with AVID, a Las Cruces-based migrant advocacy organization. “They are very depressed, suffering from mental health issues […] not getting any mental health care or any care at all. I think it’s a really alarming situation that people need to know about.”

Group members say they plan to ask the state’s congressional delegation to look into the situation at the Otero County Processing Center.

Border Report on Friday approached ICE for comment and was told the agency would be researching the issue.

“Raul,” another Guatemalan held at Otero who spoke over a telephone line with Border Report, said he caught the coronavirus inside the facility and was placed in a room detainees call “the hole” for a month.

“It’s a very small room. The psychological damage of being there was worse than the disease. All of us who were diagnosed with COVID went through that. One guy from Ecuador almost died. A nurse told them (the guards) to get him out because he was so sick,” Raul said.

He and others told Border Report that, once out of quarantine, they were told to sign a document they later learned was either a notice or a consent to delay their deportation for up to 90 days.

“I don’t know what those papers were. I don’t read English and I don’t speak much Spanish,” said “Juan,” a Guatemalan of Mayan descent. “I tell ICE I don’t want to fight my case. […] I want to be with my wife and my (1-year-old) daughter. My mom and my dad need me. They’re all worried about me.”

He said he caught COVID-19 inside the Otero facility in May but didn’t “feel anything.” He and others said that if ICE is afraid that the virus is still active in their bodies, it should test them again.

Brown Vega said she suspects what’s allegedly going on at Otero is happening at detention centers all over the country.

“Even if you support the detention of immigrants, our own government says it’s supposed to be non-punitive. But these places clearly are punitive,” she said. “They’re meant to destroy people and beat them down so much to try to get other people to not come here. It is a deterrent, at least that is the intent.”

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