By NOMAAN MERCHANT Associated Press
HOUSTON (AP) — Elsy was on the phone in an immigration detention center when guards showed up with face masks and forms to sign.
The asylum-seeker from El Salvador and others had resorted to tearing their T-shirts into face coverings after a woman in their unit tested positive for COVID-19. But the guards would not give out the masks until the detainees signed the forms, which said they could not hold the private prison company running the detention center in San Diego liable if they got the coronavirus, according to Elsy and two other detainees, including one who read the form to The Associated Press over the phone.
When they refused Friday, the guards took away the masks, said Elsy, who spoke on condition that her last name be withheld for fear of retribution.
While U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has started to lower the number of detainees to reduce the risk of people getting sick, those held in immigration jails and their advocates say there's not enough protective gear, cleaning supplies or space to allow for social distancing. They fear the number of coronavirus cases will sharply rise in the coming weeks as it has in jails and prisons nationwide.
The Otay Mesa Detention Center, where Elsy is held, jumped from one confirmed case last week to 12. There are 72 detainees in 12 states who tested positive and hundreds of others under quarantine.
Detainees in at least four states say they have been denied masks, even as the White House has urged face coverings in public.
Private prison company CoreCivic, which operates Otay Mesa, denied that masks were withheld unless detainees signed waivers. Spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist said Monday that detainees were given an "acknowledgment form" that a mask alone could not protect them from the virus.
"It was not the intent of the previous form to require detainees to relinquish all rights related to COVID-19," Gilchrist said, adding that the company has stopped using it. "Detainees are only required to initial documentation evidencing they were issued a mask."
While jails and prisons are releasing some non-violent offenders, ICE says it has freed 160 people so far and instructed field offices to review the cases of people over 60 or those with certain medical conditions.
The number of people in ICE detention now totals 33,800, down from about 37,000 a few weeks ago. Though the Trump administration has effectively shut down new asylum claims during the pandemic, it's still holding people who were apprehended months or years earlier for civil violations, including over 5,800 people who passed government asylum screenings.
Opponents argue that ICE could release thousands of people who aren't accused of a crime, have cleared asylum screenings or won their cases but are being detained while the government appeals.
"Immigrant detainees do not need to be in a detention center in order to be monitored by ICE," said Margaret Cargioli, managing attorney at the Immigrant Defenders Law Center. "This pandemic can only be adequately managed if everyone is healthy and everyone is in a safe environment."
Andrew Arthur of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors restricting immigration, argued that detainees have constant access to medical care and that ICE and prison companies have an interest in limiting the spread of the virus because "they want to continue that business of detention."
A central problem is access to protective equipment, which even medical workers have struggled to get. ICE did not respond to questions about masks.
"The officers have masks and we don't," a woman detained at the Montgomery Processing Center north of Houston said in a video posted by the advocacy group RAICES Action. Another woman in the video holds a sign in Spanish saying she's pregnant and fears for her baby's life.
In Louisiana, which has become a hot spot for cases and where more than 6,000 immigration detainees are held mostly in rural jails, an asylum-seeker said he and others confined to their unit in the Pine Prairie jail pleaded for masks and more cleaning supplies. More than 50 men sleep on bunk beds.
"We don't have any social distance within us," said the detainee from Cameroon who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. "We are just living by the grace of God."
Four immigration jails in Louisiana, including Pine Prairie, have confirmed cases of COVID-19.
In Florida, some detainees said in a complaint filed by immigrant rights groups that they had been denied masks and gloves, even when they tried to buy them in the commissary.
"I sleep on a bunk bed and am surrounded by multiple other bunk beds, all occupied by inmates. It is not possible to stay six feet away from cellmates," Juan Carlos Alfaro Garcia, 39, said in the complaint.
At Otay Mesa in San Diego, a detainee from El Salvador who asked to be identified only by his first name, Jose, for fear of retribution, said jail guards had searched his cell and touched his belongings without wearing masks or gloves.
"They put the virus in here," Jose said. "The only way we can get the virus is because they brought the virus."
Elsy, who is seeking asylum because she said she was persecuted for her sexual orientation in El Salvador, still doesn't have a jail-issued mask. Meanwhile, she says a guard threatened to write up her and others for tearing T-shirts to use as face coverings.
"The fear of all this makes me think that we won't be out of here alive, but dead," she said.