Families Fear For Their Loved Ones In ICE Lockup, As Guards Test Positive For COVID-19

At least three ICE employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at two different Houston-area immigrant detention centers. Health experts and advocates say it’s just a matter of time until this becomes a full-fledged outbreak in facilities known for their substandard health care.

At least three employees at Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers in the Houston area have now tested positive for COVID-19.

They’re the first confirmed cases in Texas immigrant detention centers. The state holds more detained immigrants than any other state in the country, around 40% of the national detained population.

The COVID-19 cases come as doctors, advocates and lawmakers are urging for the rapid release of detainees to avoid a full-fledged outbreak, which would put thousands of lives at risk.

Breathing heavy in ICE detention

Maria Vasquez is worried about her father, Roman Vasquez, who is locked up at an ICE detention center in Conroe. It’s one of two ICE facilities in the Houston-area where guards and other personnel have tested positive for COVID-19.

Maria Vasquez and her family have been advocating for her dad since he was detained at the airport in late March.

Roman Vasquez, a green card holder in the Houston area, plays with his granddaughter.

“I think when they noticed he was actually sick, when we pointed all that attention towards him, they realized he was really sick and they isolated him from everyone else in the medical unit and general population,” said Maria Vasquez.

While in detention, her father was taken to the hospital for pneumonia.

“My dad's never had a problem where he could never catch his breath,” she said.

Vasquez is concerned her elderly father's underlying health issues make him especially vulnerable to COVID-19 — and other diseases.

Since Roman Vasquez was detained, two security officers at the Conroe facility have tested positive for COVID-19, according to multiple sources with intimate knowledge of the detention center. GeoGroup, the for-profit company that operates the facility, has only confirmed one of those cases.

Houston resident Roman Vasquez spends quality with his grandson.

And Maria Vasquez fears her dad might have it too.

“I think he's had it and he's probably still dealing with it”, she said, “when my sister went to go visit him, he was very sick, he said it was hard to breath, they had to have him on an oxygen tank, he had pneumonia.”

She said her father was placed in isolation in the medical ward, but doesn't think he was tested for COVID-19.

Maria Vasquez and her family aren’t the only ones afraid.

“There’s a big sense of fear in the detention facilities. There was three weeks ago, and so now it’s even greater,” said Elizabeth Sanchez Kennedy, YMCA International’s director of immigration legal services in Houston.

Though ICE hasn't confirmed any detainees in Texas have COVID-19, at least six detained immigrants in other states have tested positive.

“A tinderbox”

Where there's one positive case, there are likely to be others, said epidemiologist and whistleblower Jody Rich who works with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

He called these detention centers a “tinderbox” because social distancing is impossible in these facilities, so the disease can spread “like wildfire”.

“There's going to be waves of infection through these facilities that most people, 80%, are going to be fine and 20% of people are going to be quite ill,” Rich said.

“The people I'm seeing in the hospital, they're going to die if they don't get medical care.”

Rich said a sudden onset of patients from an outbreak in detention could strain local hospitals and detainees might not get the medical attention they need to stay alive.

“The healthcare system is great at dealing with a slow dribble of sick patients. We saw that in Italy, there's large numbers of infections and large people in the hospital mortality rates staying low staying low… and then it just turned and mortality rates shot up when they reached capacity.”

He said we can look to the current outbreak at New York City’s jail complex on Rikers Island as a model for what could happen.

There, 389 people have tested positive for COVID-19, including 184 incarcerated people. Infection rates are much higher than in the general non-detained population.

And ICE hasn’t proven itself to provide quality health care to its detainees prior to or during COVID-19.

Last year, a federal investigation found some ICE facilities providing poor medical care and sanitation.

An anonymous source with intimate knowledge of the Conroe ICE facility told Houston Public Media that leadership at the detention center “weren't taking it (the outbreak) seriously” and it wasn’t until after a guard tested positive that they started checking employees for fevers.

MORE: Migrants With Medical Problems Receive Minimal Care In ICE Lockup

Growing calls to release detained immigrants

More than 3,000 doctors nationwide have signed a petition urging for the release of detained immigrants, most of whom aren't facing any serious criminal charges.

The Hispanic Congressional Caucus has also demanded low-risk individuals be released.

In Louisiana, the Southern Poverty Law Center and ACLU of Louisiana have sued ICE so they will release vulnerable detainees from detention, during the outbreak.

ICE currently holds some 36,000 people in immigrant detention nationwide. Around 40% of those people are being held in Texas, according to analysis based on data from 2015.

Dr. Rich said the irony is while it's complicated to release inmates from our jails, which is another at-risk population, the mechanism for releasing immigrants is simpler.

“There is one central authority that could release any or all of them,” said Rich.

But there's no evidence the federal government will be releasing anyone from these detention centers.

Meanwhile, families hope their loved ones on the inside will stay healthy.


Elizabeth Trovall

Elizabeth Trovall

Immigration Reporter

Elizabeth Trovall is an immigration reporter for Houston Public Media. She joined the News 88.7 team after several years abroad in Santiago, Chile, where she reported on business, energy, politics and culture. Trovall's work has been featured on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, Latino...

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