EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Fear has a tight grip on detainees at the Otero County Processing Center, who up until a month ago were using their personal shampoo to disinfect common areas due to a lack of cleaning supplies, migrant advocates say.
Since then, the facility has provided hand sanitizers in some — but not all — dormitories and handed out masks, yet the number of COVID-19 infections continue to rise, they say.
“They’re still not given adequate hygiene supplies. What most of us are doing — cleaning frequently-used areas several times a day — they’re not able to do at all. There are 20 to 30 people in a dorm, so you can imagine how difficult that is,” said Margaret Brown Vega, coordinator of Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention (AVID).
Sixty-six detainees have tested positive for the coronavirus as of Friday afternoon at the Otero facility, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) website. That’s eight more than the previous day.
The advocates and some members of the New Mexico congressional delegation fear the count will keep rising unless conditions improve.
“What we are hearing from people is that they are afraid of getting the virus inside and dying in detention,” Brown Vega said. “People who under normal circumstances have a willingness to fight for their immigration case are giving up because they just want to be out of there as quickly as possible.”
AVID volunteers regularly visited the center prior to March 13 and still keep in telephone contact with detainees. Most of those in detention are seeking lawful asylum in the United States.
AVID and a score of other community organizations, as well as members of the New Mexico congressional delegation, have asked the Department of Homeland Security to release all non-violent migrants without a criminal record to prevent further outbreaks. The requests have been ignored.
“They’ve been doing blanket denial of parole. That is when someone presents himself (to U.S. authorities) and if they’re not a threat and if they have a sponsor, historically they would be released. But they’re not releasing anyone at all,” Brown Vega said.
U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, a pair of New Mexico Democrats, on April 28 asked the Inspector General of DHS to investigate conditions at detention centers, which as of Friday held 26,660 migrants, of whom 1,201 have tested positive for COVID-19.
“There are reports across the country of detention facility staff working without masks or gloves in facilities that have confirmed cases. These reports follow detainees’ inability to practice social distancing an instances where ICE has even failed to provide detainees with soap to wash their hands,” the senators and 24 colleagues said in a letter to the Inspector General.
In a second letter, this one dated May 20, the senators told DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf that “crowded, unsanitary conditions in ICE detention put nearly 30,000 detainees and detention center staff at especially high risk of COVID-19 infection.”
Border Report requested comment from ICE regarding specific conditions at the Otero facility and received the following response:
“Detainees at the Otero County Processing Center are provided with, and required to wear, face masks. ICE and security staff are provided face masks and gloves, which they are required to wear at all times in the facility. In addition to providing detainees with soap for the shower and hand soap for hand washing, alcohol-based sanitizer is placed in visitor entrances, exits, waiting areas and available to staff and detainees in the secure setting.
“Soap and paper towels are available in bathrooms and work areas within the facilities and routinely replenished.”
But Brown Vega said cleaning supplies are still scarce while solitary confinement units — which is where COVID-19 positive detainees are placed at Otero — are full.
“There are a lot of fearful people in detention and there’s no reason to keep them under these conditions. It’s not overstating to say (detention) is becoming a death sentence for some of these migrants,” she said. “I would like to see our legislators press ICE to release as many people before this gets even more out of hand.”