Over 70 detainees test positive for COVID-19

In this 2018 file photo, a van rolls along Buena Vista Boulevard after leaving the Port Isabel Detention Center near Los Fresnos. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is believed to be in the van, heading to Brownsville to visit Southwest Key Casa El Presidente. By Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald

Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Tuesday confirmed 76 positive coronavirus cases among detainees at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos. Cases have been steadily rising inside the facility, where detainees have reported higher numbers than what ICE has confirmed publicly.

A note at the bottom of Cameron County Public Health’s latest COVID-19 case numbers stated that nine employees at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center had tested positive.

ICE did not report any positive employee cases at the facility in its published COVID-19 guidance, but the agency is not required to report positives among its contracted detention center staff.

On Friday night, a San Benito city commissioner reported via Facebook that one of the county’s reported COVID-19 deaths was a PIDC detention officer. Asked to confirm whether reports of a guard at the facility passing away due to COVID-19 were true, ICE referred inquiries to Ahtna, Inc., an Alaska-based company that contracts workers at the facility.

Ahtna’s corporate communications director Shannon Blue replied, “We can confirm that an Ahtna Support and Training Services employee at Port Isabel Detention Center passed away on June 25, 2020. Our heartfelt condolences go out to the valued team member’s family and loved ones.”

According to ICE’s most recent statistics, there are currently 23,429 detainees in the agency’s custody nationwide. ICE’s website states that the facility’s population has dropped by nearly 7,000 detainees since March 1.

Detainees in touch with RGV Equal Voice Network’s Norma Herrera this week indicated that all dorms are under allegedly quarantine and that at least one dorm in the “Delta” unit is possibly being used as an overflow space for detainees who are COVID-19 positive or otherwise under isolation or monitoring but don’t fit in the medical unit.

“We’ve been hearing all along that people are being denied testing, that the medical personnel will come into the dorms asking if they have a fever, but anything short of that, you don’t get testing,” said Herrera.

esheridan@brownsvilleherald.com