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“Horrifying Neglect”: COVID-19 Deaths in ICE Custody Spark New Calls for Mass Release of Prisoners

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Calls are growing for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release people from detention during the pandemic, as two people have died from COVID-19 while in custody. We speak with The Intercept’s Ryan Devereaux, who reported on how Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, suffered horrifying neglect before he passed away. We are also joined by Erika Andiola with RAICES Action. “None of those folks — especially people who migrated seeking asylum — they did not do anything to deserve a life sentence in a detention center,” Andiola notes.

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StoryOct 03, 2019As Man Dies in ICE Custody, California Moves to Ban For-Profit Prisons, Including Immigrant Jails
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Calls for ICE — that’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement — to release people from detention during the pandemic are growing, after a second person died from the virus Sunday while in custody. A 34-year-old Guatemalan man named Santiago Baten-Oxlaj reportedly passed away due to COVID-19 after being detained at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. ICE said he died at a hospital in Columbus after being transferred there on April 17th. Human rights advocates are calling for an investigation and say guards at Stewart have used SWAT-like teams to stop people there who tried to go on hunger strikes to call for their release amidst the pandemic. Baten-Oxlaj is the second known person to die of COVID-19 in immigration custody.

The first was 57-year-old Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, who came from El Salvador with his family in the '80s during the country's U.S.-backed civil war. He was the youngest of five siblings, the only one who hadn’t been able to obtain permanent residency. Escobar Mejia had been detained at the for-profit Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego since January. The jail has the largest coronavirus outbreak of any ICE jail in the country. When he died, Escobar Mejia had reportedly been in the hospital on a ventilator for over a week.

This is asylum seeker Oscar Nevarez Diaz, who’s jailed at Otay Mesa. He could face retaliation for speaking out, but he described what happened.

OSCAR NEVAREZ DIAZ: We have had one individual pass away. He was our friend. He was here in Mike pod with me and the rest of the individuals here in Mike pod. He was an older gentleman. His name is Ernesto Escobar, Carlos Escobar.

He had underlying health conditions, and he had more than a month complaining to the medical staff that he was sick. He would be in and out of medical. First of all, he’s a person that had diabetes, and he had a — part of his foot had been chopped off, and he was in a wheelchair. So, he had to get insulin. He had bad problems to begin with.

But for over a month, he was sick, and he — and I have many people, more than — everybody in my pod is willing to attest to that. And on a lot of times when he felt sick, we would complain to the COs, and they would just tell him, “Oh, tell him he has to sign up for sick call.” “The nurses will come with the medication?” “Oh, tell him to sign up for sick call tomorrow.”

They don’t care here. They don’t care about us human beings. They don’t even see us as human beings. They see us, since we’re immigrants, we’re less than human to these people.They don’t care about us at all.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Oscar Nevarez Diaz, who is also jailed at Otay Mesa Detention Center.

For more on what happened to his friend, Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, we’re joined by Ryan Devereaux, staff reporter at The Intercept, where he covered this tragic story in a piece headlined ”ICE Detainee Who Died of COVID-19 Suffered Horrifying Neglect.”

Tell us more about who he was and how he died, Ryan.

RYAN DEVEREAUX: Thank you for having me, Amy.

Yeah, so, Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, as you mentioned, came from El Salvador in the 1980s, when he was a teenager, with his family, fleeing a civil war that had displaced roughly a million Salvadoran civilians, had led to the deaths of thousands of civilians. So he came to the United States as a refugee. And he had lived in this country for 40 years at the time that he was arrested in January of this year. His siblings had obtained citizenship, but Carlos had not. He had had some run-ins with the law in the ’80s and ’90s, and his last conviction was in ’93, as far as his former attorney says. He had sort of carried these demons of the civil war with him into his life as a young man, but, in the last decade and a half or so, had really turn his life around, by all accounts. I mean, he continued to struggle. He was confined to a wheelchair following a work accident last year that led to the amputation of his right foot. But according to those who knew him, he had sort of built his life around providing for his sister.

He found himself in Border Patrol custody early this year when he was receiving a ride from a friend outside of San Diego. And really, being sent to Otay Mesa turned his life upside down. He struggled to find a wheelchair. And he happened to be landing in this detention center that was on a trajectory to become the sort of epicenter of coronavirus in ICE detention. And as the weeks went on, a request for bond was denied. He, like thousands of others who have been picked up by ICE under the Trump administration, was kept locked up even as this virus was unfolding.

And according to the accounts of the men who were with him in his final days, they were doing everything that they possibly could to raise concerns about Carlos’s deteriorating health condition. And Carlos himself was raising concerns. And they say that those alarms that they rang fell on deaf ears and that as a result, Carlos died. They believe that if action would have been taken sooner, if he would have been taken to a hospital early on, instead of being moved to a sort of unit meant for holding people suspected of COVID-19, if he would have been first just taken to a doctor, there’s a chance he would have still been alive. And so, these men who were with him are speaking out, at great personal risk, to try to correct the record on what happened here, what happened to this man, who unfortunately became the first person to die in ICE custody, which was a reality that everybody who knows anything about ICE detention was warning about from the moment this virus became a reality that we were all going to have to contend with.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ryan, about the generalized conditions in these detention facilities, there have been instances where ICE has actually pepper-sprayed or maced the detainees who were trying to seek safer conditions? Can you talk about that?

RYAN DEVEREAUX: That’s absolutely right. So, we’ve seen a pattern over the last couple months in detention centers around the country of people rising up and trying to make their voices heard, speaking out to journalists and advocacy organizations, saying that “We’re trapped in here. We feel forgotten. We’re terrified that we aren’t going to make it back to our families.” People are staging hunger strikes. They’re, like I said, talking to reporters.

The response from the government and its private contracting partners, who, by the way, make a lot of money off of this whole apparatus of detention, has been essentially repression — you know, pepper spray and tear gas, retaliation against reporters who are speaking to people in detention. That has been the way that ICE, and the companies that it has worked with, has largely responded to the situation.

And it’s worth keeping in mind that the population that we’re talking about are folks being held on civil immigration violations. They’re not being held for violating criminal law. They’re not serving criminal sentences. The upshot of that, the significance of that, is that the government could release these people at any time, if it wanted to. It is choosing to continue to hold tens of thousands of people in jails. They’ll call them “detention centers,” but what this is, in terms of the actual experience of it, is incarceration. ICE’s detention numbers are lower than they’ve been in a long, long time, but we’re still talking about more than 26,000 people who are being held.

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan, in a moment we’re going to be joined by Erika Andiola, but I wanted to go quickly to the two other pieces that you have written about during the pandemic. In March, two men at the Etowah County Detention Center in northern Alabama threatened to take their own lives, because they feared people transferred there by ICE were COVID-19-positive, and they didn’t want to be in the same pod or jail cell with them. A person held in the jail streamed the protest live on his Facebook page as the two men stood on a ledge with nooses made from sheets wrapped around their necks. They threatened to jump unless guards moved the new arrivals to a different unit. This is a clip of the video of the protest, which was recorded by The Washington Post.

DETAINEE: They’re not caring. They got three positive tested for the coronavirus in here with us. They brought them in here today [bleep] while we were sleeping. And they’re not trying to — they’re not trying to let them out of here. We’re telling them, yo, y’all gotta take them out of here, or we’re going to turn up in here. They’re threatening to shoot us with Tasers and pellet guns.

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Devereaux, you reported on this story, headlined “Burials Are Cheaper Than Deportations,” and you spoke to Karim Golding and Tesfa Miller, prisoners at Etowah County Detention Center, who described the conditions at the jail. This is what they said.

KARIM GOLDING: This is the facility with the lowest standards in the U.S., right? There’s a lot of issues that we’ve been dealing with beyond the coronavirus, prior to coronavirus.

TESFA MILLER: We don’t have no help. And we’re so far removed from everything else, it’s like nobody notices. Nobody even know that we’re here.

KARIM GOLDING: The entire system is working to keep this facility open, because this is their money. This is small town U.S.A., and this is just how these private contracts benefit your community. If you’re not working here, you’re working at Goodyear. Goodyear just closed down or laid people off. So, other than that, you’re either working at McDonald’s or picking up paper on the side of the road.

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan, tell us more about these prisoners at Etowah County Detention Center and the ones that threatened to take their own life.

RYAN DEVEREAUX: Yeah, I think what these men are trying to express is something that you’re hearing from folks in detention centers all across the country, and that is the feeling of being forgotten in the midst of a global pandemic that’s ripping through this country. And what they’re describing is a system of detention and deportation that’s been built up over the last several decades to the point that it is now, you know, holding tens of thousands of people and refusing to release them, even as experts say that — the Department of Homeland Security’s own medical experts have said that these detention centers are a tinderbox — those are their words — for the spread of the coronavirus. So, the men that I spoke to at Etowah County were really articulating the desperation that I just heard from the men who were detained with Carlos in San Diego on the other side of the country. I mean, this is the message that is coming out of these detention centers fairly consistently at this point.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We’re also joined by Erika Andiola, who is the chief advocacy officer for RAICES Action, the advocacy arm for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. She’s also the host of a new podcast series called Homeland Insecurity, which has just been launched.

Welcome back to the show, Erika. Could you talk about the situation right now with these detention centers and Trump administration policy?

ERIKA ANDIOLA: Yeah. I mean, you know, a lot of us saw this coming. A lot of us saw this being a ticking time bomb since the very beginning, you know, when we started seeing the pandemic getting bigger and bigger in different communities. We knew that as soon as it got to detention centers, it was a matter of time before a lot of people — and in this case, there’s been hundreds and hundreds of people now who have been — have contracted COVID. And as was mentioned before, we now have two deaths, Carlos and Santiago, who have passed away.

And unfortunately, the reason why we knew this was going to happen, you know, as RAICES, the sister organization RAICES Action, we have been hearing the stories of people since the very beginning of not being provided with the right equipment to protect themselves, not having masks, not having soap, you know, many of them washing their hands with shampoo because they had nothing else to wash their hands with, not being able to socially distance. And so, I mean, it was just really a matter of time before this happened. And it’s just — you know, none of those folks, especially people who migrated seeking asylum, they did not do anything to deserve a life sentence in a detention center.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Erika, if you —


AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Erika, this policy now of the Trump administration for even asylum seekers, to immediately deport them back to their country, and actually got the backing of the head of the Centers for Disease Control as a public health issue?

ERIKA ANDIOLA: That’s right. They are using COVID-19 as a way to enact what they’ve been wanting to enact for a long time. We know that Stephen Miller, Steve Miller from the White House, has had this agenda for — you know, since they got elected into the White House, they wanted to end asylum. They have tried in different ways, through Congress. They have tried to do it through the executive powers. And now that COVID-19 is here and that there’s a pandemic and people are afraid for their lives and their security, now they’re using it to deny people the right to seek asylum in the U.S.

And, you know, I also want to mention that children are also being deported on their own. We know that for a fact. A lot of our attorneys actually work with children in detention. We have seen way less children now who are coming into the shelters, not because they’re being released into the community to be with their families, but because they’re being turned back to either Mexico or the countries that they migrated from, which is — you know, imagine, I mean, there’s literally children who are being sent back on their own, without necessarily having the proper way of seeking asylum and the right that they have to seek asylum.

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to get your response, Erika, to — Ryan, if you could tell us in just 30 seconds about this final story you did about New Rochelle, which was the epicenter in New York at first, but what happened right before it with ICE raids?

RYAN DEVEREAUX: Literally the day before Governor Cuomo sort of cordoned off New Rochelle as the epicenter of the epicenter in New York, ICE was in the community making arrests. They arrested a father in front of his wife and kids, took him into one of the detention centers, that became one of the first sites of coronavirus outbreak in New York.

And what I found in that reporting was that at the beginning of this year, the Trump administration, through ICE, was engaged in a really aggressive crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities, the political opponents of the Trump administration, and started filling ICE detention centers around the New York-New Jersey area with people from the community, folks who wouldn’t have been arrested in the weeks or months prior, as part of this crackdown. And those facilities, where they were drawing people from the communities where the virus was spreading, became the facilities that first saw outbreaks of the coronavirus.

AMY GOODMAN: Erika Andiola, if you could jump off of that and also talk about why you’ve started your new podcast, Homeland Insecurity, launching today?

ERIKA ANDIOLA: Yeah, we’re really excited to launch the podcast today. And the reason for that is because we’ve been wanting to tell the story of how DHS came about. I know that there’s a lot of people who are skeptical perhaps about abolishing ICE or, you know, just imagining what this country would have been like without DHS. And we want to tell the story of how at some point there was no DHS, at some point there was no ICE.

And the reason why we’re here was because of literally homeland insecurity, right? People who — in this country, who became so afraid after 9/11. And, you know, in some ways, I myself, as an undocumented immigrant, now a DACA recipient, became the enemy for an agency that now has turned all of their power and all of their — you know, really their focus on people like myself, instead of really focusing on real threats like COVID. COVID-19 really showed that now DHS, instead of really focusing on what could be real threats to the homeland, ended up focusing on people like me. So, I unpack that history. We have released first four episodes today.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. 


AMY GOODMAN: But we will link to your new podcast. Erika Andiola, chief advocacy officer for RAICES Action, her new podcast, Homeland Insecurity. And thanks so much to Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.

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As Man Dies in ICE Custody, California Moves to Ban For-Profit Prisons, Including Immigrant Jails

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