A version of this story originally appeared in Spanish. Una versión de esta historia apareció originalmente en español. Léelo aquí.
In the sprawling human drama of the COVID-19 crisis, the fate of immigration detainees has become a significant subplot, with court action and protests at different points around the country.
For Victoria Ramirez, the drama began with silence.
“Today, Tuesday, is the first day my husband hasn’t called me all day,” said Ramirez, whose husband is in the Bergen County Jail detention center in Hackensack, N.J., last week–on the same day that Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed that a 31-year-old Mexican citizen in ICE custody had tested positive for COVID-19.
Ramírez knew that something was happening in the detention center because her husband calls her at least once a day and they regularly talk for five minutes. But her biggest concern was not the lack of conversation but the fact that her 36-year-old husband, who had a lung punctured by a broken rib in the past, is at greater risk since a “normal cold makes him ill and I don’t even want to imagine how [ill] he would get on this virus,” Ramírez told City Limits.
According to an ICE statement last week, “The individual has been quarantined and is receiving care. Consistent with CDC guidelines, those who have come in contact with the individual have been cohorted and are being monitored for symptoms. ICE is suspending intake at the facility until further information is available.”
Later in the week, a second detainee tested positive, this one held at the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark. A guard had tested positive the previous week at Bergen.
Ramirez’s husband told her that for the past three weeks the detainees in Bergen had been spending more time in their cells, but no one was explaining to them what was going on. As other media outlets reported, Ramírez said that the detainees learned about the virus through news reports and from friends and family.
Ramírez said the guard “was in contact with all the detainees, including my husband who knew the guard,” Ramírez said. “And they [detainees] walked normally, without gloves, without masks, without anything.”
Because of this, she fears that more detainees will test positive in the coming days.
In another wing of the same detention center, “in a place that hadn’t been used in ten years,” Jessica’s partner —her last name withheld, is being held “because the ICE section is overcrowded.” In that section, “there are no windows, no ventilation system and they can only leave for 30 minutes a day,” so after knowing that a guard was infected, she does not want to imagine what will happen.
“What can they do?” said Jessica, “It’s basically a hot box for disease.”
Both Jessica and Ramírez explained that when a detainee requires medical services, the request can take up to 72 hours to be picked up by staff and can take days to process.
Jessica’s partner broke a tooth while eating at a different ICE detention center and underwent surgery to remove the tooth. He was then transferred to Bergen. While there, they discovered that the wound was infected because there was still a piece of the tooth embedded in it. “They gave him painkillers for two days and then nothing. This is the quality [of care] they have. It lasts for a day,” Jessica said.
For Jessica, this unpreparedness proves that “keeping people in detention is not going to keep the virus out of the detention center.”
After an officer tested positive on March 15, the inmates were quarantined as a precaution, Bergen County Sheriff Anthony Cureton’s spokesman Derek Sands said.
“How is it possible to do social isolation in a detention center?” said Jorge Muñiz, neighborhood “patrol officer” forming the Sunset Park Emergency ICE Watch. The Bergen jail had a mumps outbreak in June 2019, Muñiz recalled during the phone call. “Prisons are not places to take care of this virus. The right thing to do is to set them free, and that can save lives”. Muñiz added, “These are people who do not have criminal cases.” Moreover, as ProPublica has reported, ICE has repeatedly failed to contain contagious diseases.
The last time pastor Fabian Arias, who has visited ICE detainees in Bergen for years, went to see immigrants detained in Bergen was on Monday, March 16. During this visit the father recalls that “there were no precautions, they had no gloves, they were all together and if anyone complained they were sent to the punishment barracks, in the dark, locked up.” The next day the center closed to visitors, said Arias.
In New Jersey, detainees in three prisons are now on hunger strike due to unsanitary conditions and the high risk to which they are exposed during this pandemic.
“Many immigration courts have closed. Lawyers are not visiting detainees. And the situation now is like being in a hurricane, when the rain stops the real impact will be known,” said Francisco Collazos, Immigrant Families Together co-founder.
Organizations such as Immigrant Families Together are currently working to identify how many detainees may be at greatest risk in detention centers. Other organizations such as Legal Aid Society, American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center, Bronx Defenders and Brooklyn Defenders have already filed several lawsuits.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights made an urgent call on March 25 to protect the health and safety of people in detention facilities as part of efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
On March 26th, District Judge Analisa Torres in the Southern District of New York ordered the detainees’ immediate release of 10 immigrants in NJ, blocking Thomas Decker, the director of ICE’s New York Field Office, and Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, from arresting them again while awaiting removal hearings.
Additionally, on March 27th, the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the release of 52 low-risk county inmates from the Bergen County Jail and District Judge Alison J. Nathan in the Southern District of New York ordered the release of four immigrants in ICE detention.
Currently, there are over 37,000 ICE detainees nationwide.