COVID-19 cases continue to rise at federal detention facility

The main entrance to the Port Isabel Detention Center on Sunday, June 24, 2018. Port Isabel is about 20 miles northwest of Brownsville. Reynaldo Leal for The Texas Tribune

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases inside the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos rose to eight over the weekend. Demonstrators at a protest outside the facility over the weekend spoke with detainees over the phone who indicated there were more cases inside the facility than what Immigration and Customs Enforcement is reporting publicly.

ICE’s website on Monday indicated there were seven detainees currently under medical isolation or monitoring and eight confirmed coronavirus cases inside PIDC.

Reports indicating the ongoing transfer of detainees between detention centers, the admittance of new detainees into the facility, and a lack of testing available to potential asymptomatic carriers could mean that more likely than not, there is already an outbreak happening inside the facility.

In combination with reports of guards not wearing personal protective gear and inadequate cleaning supplies available to detainees, both demonstrators and those detained inside PIDC expressed concern that if ICE doesn’t act, lives will be lost.

By the end of Saturday’s demonstration, the Angry Tias had learned that Steven, a young, severely diabetic pastor from Uganda detained inside the center after he legally sought asylum, was displaying flu-like symptoms. Steven was recently refused humanitarian release by ICE, which his attorneys requested due to his extremely compromised immune system. His asylum case is on appeal at the Fifth Circuit.

ICE said last week it was adhering to guidance and all recommended precautions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, directing inquiries to the COVID-19 guidance posted on its website.

Two groups of detainees spoke with EVN Rapid Response Community Organizer Norma Herrera, reporters, and demonstrators on Saturday evening outside the facility.

The estimates detainees gave the crowd regarding the number of confirmed COVID cases at PIDC varied, but two clear counts — 27 and 5 confirmed cases, 5 employee cases, 240 detainees quarantined, and 120 detainees preparing to hunger strike — indicated the number of cases is rising steadily and was already higher than what ICE had reported publicly.

Asked to confirm whether any detainees at PIDC or at the El Valle Detention Center in Raymondville were on hunger strike, ICE indicated Monday there were no detainees on hunger strike at El Valle. At PIDC, the agency confirmed there were two detainees on hunger strike as of June 3.

One detainee reported that three pods in dormitory “A”, housing roughly 40 detainees each, were preparing to go on hunger strike on Sunday morning. The detainee estimated 120 people total would be refusing to eat.

The news came following reports from advocacy coalitions Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network (EVN) and Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley announced that two Cuban men inside the facility — Julio Cutino Sanchez and Yoirlan Tome Rojas launched a hunger strike on May 29.

Sanchez started eating again last week. On Monday, Rojas’ hunger strike entered its second week.

ICE’s website on Monday did not list any confirmed cases among detention center employees. The agency does not list publicly the number of coronavirus infections among its contracted detention facility staff. Chenega Facilities Management and Ahtna, Inc, two Alaska-based companies who manage PIDC’s contract workers, were contacted for comment.

News broke on April 9 that a Chenega employee who worked at PIDC had tested positive, but hadn’t worked inside the facility since March 30. On Monday, Chenga’s General Manager Scott Wallace confirmed there were no additional cases among the company’s staff.

Ahtna, Inc. had not responded as of press time.

ICE’s detained population was 25,421 as of May 30. On June 5, the agency reported it had conducted a total of 5,096 tests since the pandemic began. Figures show 838 detainees currently in ICE custody who tested positive were under isolation or monitoring as of June 7.