Vela seeks answers on COVID-19 cases at detention center

An outbreak of coronavirus cases at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos rose to 34 confirmed cases on Friday. Records indicate 31 of those detainees were under isolation or monitoring.

The news prompted U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville to address a second letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Acting Director Matthew T. Albence asking that the agency address numerous concerns about the adherence of staff to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and ICE’s own Pandemic Response Requirements.

“Reports from conditions at PIDC indicate ICE does not provide sufficient protective gear or hygiene products, fails to provide timely information on how to prevent infection, and is either unable or unwilling to implement social distancing measures. Additionally, detention staff are not required to wear masks despite the extremely close quarters and rapid spread of the virus. These conditions have led to an outbreak of 34 confirmed cases at PIDC,” Vela wrote.

The congressman urged ICE to follow protocol and immediately release all non-violent detainees using established protocols.

Attorneys representing non-violent detainees inside the facility have repeatedly said ICE denies discretionary humanitarian release to those who should be eligible based upon misrepresented information.

The attorneys said this was particularly evident in the case of Steven, a severely diabetic pastor from Uganda who was recently denied discretionary release from PIDC based on two pages of a 14-page document ICE’s attorney submitted to a federal judge, making it appear the man had used false information to obtain a passport to leave Uganda.

The federal agency left out the remaining pages, said attorney Cathy Potter, causing a federal judge to deny her client’s motion for a temporary restraining order seeking his immediate release due to extreme risk of serious illness or death if he were to become ill. Steven was displaying flu-like symptoms this week, attorneys said.

In his letter, Vela asked ICE to provide detailed explanations on how the agency is keeping quarantined detainees at PIDC separate from non-quarantined detainees, as well as the steps ICE has taken to protect high risk detainees inside the facility.

“How many non-violent detainees have been released from PIDC? How many more non-violent detainees are you planning to release?” Vela wrote.

Vela asked for data, disaggregated by nationality, on the number of detainees at PIDC who have been tested for the virus and the number of detainees who have tested positive, as well as that same data for PIDC personnel.