Cases of COVID-19 continue to increase at detention center

A COVID-19 outbreak is growing inside the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, according to advocates and attorneys representing clients in quarantined dorms.

Some of those detainees have underlying medical conditions that place them at risk of serious illness or death if they come in contact with the virus.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Monday reported a total of eight cases — lower than the estimates detainees in touch with advocates had been reporting via phone calls and text messages. By Thursday, the number of cases in the facility rose to 26 confirmed and 23 “under isolation or observation,” validating that what detainees have been warning about for weeks has turned into an outbreak.

ICE reported an additional case at the El Valle Detention Center in Raymondville on Thursday — the first to be reported from inside the facility.

Attorneys for Steven, a severely diabetic Ugandan pastor detained at PIDC, filed a complaint against PIDC and ICE with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) on Tuesday alleging a lack of adequate medical protections at the Port Isabel Detention Center.

Over the weekend, Steven, who is going blind due to inadequate treatment of his diabetes over the year and a half he has been detained, told his attorneys he had flu-like symptoms. “The bunk beds are together, no adequate supplies of soap are provided, and even as of May 31, 2020, staffers were entering the dormitories and bringing food without wearing masks,” wrote attorney Jennifer Harbury in the complaint.

Norma Herrera of RGV Equal Voice Network on Wednesday said the rise in ICE’s reported cases substantiated what she’s already been hearing. “That really proves what folks inside have been saying. ICE is not testing people or reporting cases until it’s too late and the virus is now spreading rapidly,” she said.

A detainee inside PIDC’s dorm C-3 told advocates on Tuesday night that eight out of the facility’s 16 dormitories were under quarantine.

At PIDC, detainees allege they’re not being tested until they display serious symptoms. “If they show milder symptoms like coughing, they remain in the quarantined dorms with others, potentially infecting others if they are indeed positive. The shuffling of people across dorms is haphazard. This man and 37 other people in dorm Charlie 3 refused to be moved to another dorm yesterday and last night ICE responded by moving 20 people into their dormitory instead,” wrote Herrera.

“Later [on Tuesday], one out of those 20 reported a fever and was taken out of the dorm. Another was vomiting and was taken out of the dorm,” wrote Herrera. “He shared with me in a message later in the day that one of those people has now tested positive.”

Court records showed that ICE filed a petition in federal court in Brownsville on Wednesday in which the agency seeks to forcibly hydrate a detainee, K.K., who was on hunger strike. Last weekend, detainees told Herrera and reporters that 120 detainees initiated a hunger strike on Sunday morning in protest of their ongoing detention.

ICE confirmed in a statement that two detainees had been on hunger strike since June 3, declining to provide specific information about the ongoing hunger strikes and quarantines. “ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference,” the agency wrote, referring inquiries to its hunger strike policy.

Early this week, U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, sent a letter to ICE Acting Director Matthew T. Albence regarding Yoirlan Tome Rojas and Julio Cutino Sanchez, detainees from Cuba who initiated a hunger strike on May 29. Sanchez discontinued his hunger strike last week, but Rojas on Monday entered his second week without food.

“The high number of individuals quarantined, along with previously reported conditions of overcrowding in the facility is a testament to ICE’s failure to adequately follow CDC guidelines and recommendations to fight the spread of COVID-19,” Vela wrote.

esheridan@brownsvilleherald.com