Updated July 30 3:49 p.m. CT
People held inside Texas immigrant detention centers are 15 times more likely to have COVID-19 than the rest of the state’s population, according to the latest infection rates based on active cases reported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Despite high infection rates, ICE detention officials are failing to provide adequate social distancing and medical care, according to conversations with nearly 30 detainees across the state.
In June 2020, Israel Rodriguez was released from the Joe Corley ICE detention facility north of Houston after almost a year in immigration lockup.
He's 31 years old, and said he saw subpar medical care inside, including minimal COVID-19 testing.
“I had a friend from Burma… he was in bed for four days, and couldn't get out of bed and he was coughing, he had a fever and chills, and he presented all the symptoms the health experts talked about,” said Rodriguez.
“He wasn't tested,” he said.
Rodriguez himself ran a low-grade fever and asked for testing. He was denied, he said. He asked again soon before he was going to be released, because he was planning to see his dad who has cancer. Agauin, he said, the nurse wouldn't test him.
“One (nurse) specifically told me ‘no’, that ICE had told them that they should not test us, that they should refrain from doing so and it only should be done so in the most severe or dramatic of cases. As for general testing or widespread testing, they said that was not to happen.” said Israel.
In that same facility, Roger Ernesto La O Muñoz said he had a similar experience.
“They denied (a COVID-19 test) to me, in particular. And they don’t do (widespread) testing,” he said in Spanish.
He wrote an op-ed for the Houston Chronicle about what he said was the poor handling of the crisis. He's seeking asylum from Cuba where he studied hygiene and epidemiology.
He told the Texas Newsroom that the only time he saw people getting tested was when there were large clusters of cases, or when people were about to be deported.
At the El Paso Processing Center, one detainee said she wasn't tested for COVID-19 until she was bedridden. Another woman at the El Paso facility said she had body aches and a sore throat and was told she had to run a fever in order to be tested, despite being housed with other women who tested positive for COVID-19.
ICE said they've ramped up testing. And its numbers show that more than a quarter of detainees test positive. The test-positive rate for the general population in Texas is 15%.
‘They don’t do anything’
At the ICE Houston Processing Center, in north Houston, 124 people have tested positive, plus 32 staff, as of July 30.
One man detained there told Houston Public Media about his treatment after he tested positive for the Coronavirus.
“They don’t do anything — not even give us pills for a headache, nothing,” he said in Spanish. (Houston Public Media is not using the detainee's name to avoid possible retaliation.)
He said staff did test people in his 30-person dorm room. As people tested positive, guards would shuffle them into another room in groups, he said.
The man remembers himself and others coughing together in the room where they kept the sick detainees. They would cheer each other on for support.
Though he said he has recovered from the coronavirus, it has left permanent damage.
“I can’t breathe well,” he said, “I get tired faster.”
He said his resistance isn’t what it used to be.
ICE ramps up safety precautions, releases thousands
In response to the rapid spread of COVID-19, ICE said it has taken precautions to slow the spread. It's given multiple masks to each detainee and improved access to soap and other cleaning supplies — though ICE said these practices vary from facility to facility.
In the Joe Corley Processing Center, for example, ICE said it is providing “water, disposable cups, soap, toilet paper, feminine-hygiene items, diapers and sanitary wipes” twice each week, instead of once.
Perhaps most critically, ICE also said since February it has released more than half of the detained population in Texas.
In a statement, ICE also said it complies with CDC testing guidelines, adding that detainees with COVID-19 symptoms are checked out by a medical professional who decides whether or not to test them. ICE also said it offers voluntary testing at some facilities.
Living in close quarters
But for those still inside, the masks and additional soap aren’t enough to stay safe from the disease. Detainees breathe the same air as their cohorts in their shared dorms. At least seven detainees who spoke with the Texas Newsroom said they had shared a room with 50 people or more. Others said they saw guards walking around without masks on.
One woman in the El Paso ICE facility, who asked to remain anonymous, recalled guards orders for staying socially distant on bunk beds: “They just made us rotate our heads… the person who was on the top would have their head on the left and the girl on the bottom would have their head on the right,” she said. “That was their social distancing.”
Houston-based immigration attorney Julie Pasch said the public needs to put more pressure on ICE to release everyone they can.
“The single most important thing they need to be doing is releasing people,”Pasch said. “The best way to stop the spread of this virus in the detention centers is to get people outside of the detention centers, so they can quarantine at home with their families, with relatives, with whoever they may be able to live with.”
She said most of the people inside these facilities don't have serious criminal records.
Abel Batista lives in Miami and talks to his son, who is detained in the Montgomery Processing Center, several times a week. He said his son, a Cuban asylum seeker, has terrible allergies and chronic respiratory issues.
He’s inundated with news of COVID-19 fatalities and worries his son could be the next victim.
He said he would switch places with him if he could.
His son is one of more than 5,000 people who are still in Texas immigration lock-up.
“I don’t sleep. I don’t eat. I can’t concentrate,” Batista said in Spanish. “I can’t do anything.”
A previous version of this story misidentified the facility in which one man was detained. It was the Houston Processing Center, where 124 people have tested positive, plus 32 staff, as of July 30.