Coalition asks ICE to release detainees

A coalition of local immigration advocacy groups penned a letter to ICE’s San Antonio Field Office on Monday calling on the agency to release detainees from the Port Isabel and El Valle Detention Centers in fear of the health and well-being of individuals in immigration detention due to a lack of protective measures against coronavirus.

The letter cites inadequate medical care at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities in the Rio Grande Valley and a lack of proper precautionary measures taken to ensure detainees and facility staff at Port Isabel Service Processing Center and the El Valle Detention Facility during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Individuals detained at Port Isabel Service Processing Center report that they have not been provided sanitizer and hygiene products or even been given information about the virus,” the group wrote in the letter directed to Daniel Bible, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) Director in San Antonio.

The coalition explained that social distancing is not possible in crowded immigration detention dormitories, writing “At El Valley Detention Facility, for example, individuals sleep in large dormitories with dozens of others. Previously, close quarters coupled with systemic inadequate care have allowed outbreaks of mumps, scabies, and other highly contagious diseases to spread aggressively in immigration detention facilities,” wrote the coalition.

“ Individuals detained at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center report that they have not been provided sanitizer and hygiene products or even been given information about the virus.”

Peter McGraw, an attorney representing an asylum seeker from Guinea who has been detained in Port Isabel for more than two years confirmed last week that he visited the facility and was allowed inside without a mask despite COVID-19 guidance published on ICE’s website mandating personal protective equipment including masks, gloves, and eyewear for visiting attorneys and facility employees.

The attorney explained that detainees are normally required to pay for hand soap and that his client was concerned about access to sanitizers.

Monday’s letter also cited an article published by The Brownsville Herald in January detailing at least four hunger strikes that have taken place at Port Isabel in protest of conditions since August 2019. The letter explained that individuals already weakened by hunger strike “are at increased risk of serious illness from exposure to the coronavirus.”

“Moreover, on March 23, we learned that Ramiro Hernandez-Ibarra tragically died of septic shock after being detained at Port Isabel for 64 days. He was the 10th person to die in ICE custody since October 2019, further highlighting the systemic medical negligence in ICE facilities,” the letter stated.

ICE said on Monday that there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 inside the Port Isabel Detention Center.

A local volunteer who has made welfare visits to detainees in Port Isabel for more than a year said in a phone call she’s heard from multiple detainees over the past week that have organized a hunger strike in protest of the conditions. ICE said on Monday that no detainees had launched a hunger strike and referred inquires regarding protective equipment to the agency’s published COVID-19 guidance.

The letter addressed to ICE was signed by the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, La Unión Del Pueblo Entero, Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley, and National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice.

The coalition cited three jails in New Jersey detaining individuals for ICE that have reported confirmed cases of the illness, as well as an employee at an ICE facility in Conroe, Texas. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported on its website that an employee of Management and Training Corporation, a private, for-profit prison contractor that operates some immigration detention facilities, had contracted the illness in Richmond, Texas.

The coalition of RGV advocacy groups is asking ICE to suspend the transfers of individuals from ICE facilities in the RGV, provide access to warm water and free hygiene supplies, screening and testing of detainees, off-site quarantining and treatment, access to family and community support, suspension of in-person check-ins, and suspension of local law enforcement operations.

Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio confirmed last week that ICE was still picking up undocumented arrestees at local jails.

A March 19 open letter signed by over 3,000 medical professionals called on ICE to release detainees in anticipation of the rapid spread of COVID-19 through immigration detention facilities.

In a press release on Monday, RGV Equal Voice Network wrote that “more than 2,000 people are detained” at Port Isabel and El Valle. “Reports of insufficient or non-existent hygienic materials paired with national infection rates threaten the people within these facilities, including staff,” the organization wrote.

“As of today, a group detained at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center are on hunger strike demanding to be released,” RGV Equal Voice stated. One detainee allegedly told RGV Equal Voice staff, “They are playing with our lives,” according to the statement.

Two local immigration attorneys confirmed on Monday they were aware of the alleged hunger strike but could not yet provide details.