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Responding to COVID-19’s Impact in Immigration Detention Facilities

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Photo of Emily Bruell
Photo of Emily Bruell, 2022 Student Fellow at NMILC

By 2022 Disaster Resilience Program Student Fellow Emily Bruell, who works alongside 2022 Fellows Sophia Genovese, Taylor Noya, and Anna Trillo at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (NMILC) to provide legal aid to non-detained asylum seekers and noncitizens in immigration detention facilities experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks. In honor of National Preparedness Month, this blog was written to raise awareness about the importance of being prepared for disasters in order to respond to them adequately and efficiently.

COVID-19 has intensified the chronic issues within immigration detention facilities, which are wrought with medical neglect, government misconduct, and due process violations. The pandemic has made these facilities even more dangerous, particularly for those with medical vulnerabilities.

I work alongside my colleagues at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (NMILC) to respond to issues exacerbated by COVID-19 in two of New Mexico’s private immigration detention facilities: the Cibola County Correctional Center and the Torrance County Detention Facility.

Over the past several months, we have spoken with ill and disabled migrants and asylum seekers whose basic needs go woefully unmet while in immigration custody. We also observed that when there is a COVID-19 outbreak in a detention facility, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the facilities do not respond adequately nor appropriately, jeopardizing the health and safety of incarcerated immigrants, particularly those with medical vulnerabilities.

In response to this mismanagement, we filed a Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) complaint with the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of Edgar, a Nicaraguan asylum seeker, against the ICE El Paso Field Office and the Cibola County Correctional Center. Edgar suffered physical abuse at the hands of government officials, which resulted in his ankle being broken, and he experienced first-hand how ICE’s COVID-19 policies were negligent to the detainees in Cibola. In addition to detailing the physical abuse Edgar suffered at the hands of government officials, causing a broken ankle, we also exposed the inadequate response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The COVID-19 outbreak at Cibola began when another incarcerated immigrant in Edgar’s unit reported symptoms on Friday, August 5. Edgar reported symptoms the next day. Neither Edgar nor the other man received a COVID-19 test until the following Monday, August 8. At that time, Edgar’s entire unit was tested, then sent back to their usual dorms before learning the results of their test. The next morning, Edgar was given another COVID-19 test and informed that he tested positive.

He was then moved to quarantine—three days after initially reporting symptoms, which allowed the disease to spread in Cibola. Edgar was originally quarantined with four other men, and the number ultimately increased to seven. The total number of those who tested positive for COVID-19 is still unknown because ICE refuses to report these positive tests.

While in quarantine, Edgar experienced trouble breathing, shortness of breath, severe lung pain, and nausea in addition to intense body aches, headache, sore throat, and congestion. He was not provided any medication for over 24 hours, at which point he was given a pill for his sore throat and another for his congestion. Every evening, the men were placed in separate cells with a radio to contact the officers; however, the officers did not respond to any communication from the radio.

One of the men in quarantine became extremely ill and was struggling to breathe. Edgar and the other quarantined men pleaded for medical help over the radio but received no response. Though the man’s condition improved somewhat the next morning, the lack of response left no doubt in Edgar’s mind that he could not expect help from the officers if he needed urgent medical care.

The lack of response left no doubt in Edgar’s mind that he could not expect help from the officers if he needed urgent medical care.

In response, we escalated our concerns to ICE, and those complaints went ignored until the filing of the CRCL complaint the following week. To this day, ICE has not reported the positive COVID-19 cases at Cibola County.

Despite having ties to the United States and a sister who is deeply committed to supporting him upon release from detention, Edgar remains detained at Cibola, where he continues to experience horrific and unsafe living conditions. In light of his prolonged detention, Edgar contemplated giving up and accepting deportation; however, he remains committed to fighting his complaint and ensuring no one else suffers the way he and so many others have in Cibola County.

I work alongside my colleagues at NMILC to help people like Edgar every day. We hold on-site bimonthly legal presentations for migrants and asylum seekers that provide an overview of asylum law, their rights, how to request to be released from detention, and more. Since April of 2022 we have provided valuable legal presentations and know-your-rights information to nearly 300 incarcerated migrants and asylum seekers.

I work alongside my colleagues at NMILC to help people like Edgar every day.

We have also conducted consultations for these 300 individuals, providing them with individualized case information. After conducting consultations, NMILC—in partnership with Innovation Law Lab, Justice for Our Neighbors—El Paso, and Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center—coordinates legal services for individuals seeking representation in their requests for release from detention and other legal support. So far, we have helped release nearly 20 people from immigration detention. In addition, we have engaged in systemic advocacy to combat the cruelties of immigration enforcement, removal, and detention.

At NMLIC, we are constantly fighting for transparency in ICE operations, fighting for the rights of incarcerated migrants and asylum seekers impacted by the COVID-19 disaster, and demanding the release of all immigrants from deadly detention facilities in New Mexico. COVID-19 has exacerbated the cruelties of immigration detention, and no amount of oversight or medical response can prevent another tragedy from occurring. In the end, I believe the only way to overcome, and be resilient to, the COVID-19 crisis in New Mexico’s immigration detention facilities is to abolish detention itself.

To learn more about the Disaster Resilience Program, visit here.

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