Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Arizona ICE Detention Center Devastated By COVID-19


A surging number of immigrants in detention are testing positive for COVID-19. One ICE detention center in Arizona is especially hard-hit. The conditions there are pushing migrants to the edge and pushing their lawyers to fight for them to be released. Alisa Reznick from Arizona Public Media has the story.

ALISA REZNICK, BYLINE: Shakira Najera Chilel feels like she's faced death before. As a transgender woman, she dealt with violence and harassment back home in Guatemala. She came to the U.S. last year to seek asylum and has been detained ever since.

SHAKIRA NAJERA CHILEL: (Through interpreter) Now I find myself face-to-face with death again. You are either a survivor or you die of COVID-19.

REZNICK: I reach Chilel by phone at the Eloy Detention Center. More than 200 detainees there have tested positive for COVID-19. That's 10 times more than two weeks ago. Some were in her cellblock.

CHILEL: (Through interpreter) They took them out of their cells because they said they felt like they couldn't breathe and they were feverish.

REZNICK: Social distancing in detention is difficult, if not impossible. Even the officials who run these facilities have expressed concern about that. They were surveyed by the Homeland Security inspector general's office in April. In the report released last week, they also expressed concerns about not having enough hand sanitizer and protective gear or even medical staff and quarantine space in case of outbreaks. ACLU senior staff attorney Eunice Cho says they were right to worry.

EUNICE CHO: These are warnings that have been inevitable from the very start and exactly the reason why ICE should have and should continue to release people, especially those who are medically vulnerable to COVID-19, to prevent a humanitarian disaster.

REZNICK: ICE says it follows federal health guidelines for COVID-19. The agency also says it has ramped up testing and released hundreds of medically vulnerable detainees. But critics say those measures fall short. More than 2,700 detainees nationwide have tested positive for COVID-19. Former Homeland Security health adviser and agency whistleblower Dr. Scott Allen testified to Congress in June. He said, quote, "gaping holes in testing guidelines and ICE's failure to significantly reduce population size have made these facilities hotspots for the virus."


SCOTT ALLEN: The fact is, in the real world, use of those guidelines has been associated with failure.

REZNICK: Immigrant advocates and lawyers argue the best way to stop contagion in detention is to release detainees, many of whom have only been charged with civil violations. On Friday, a federal judge ordered ICE to release children being held in family detention centers because of coronavirus. Other lawsuits are pending. Laura Belous is with the Arizona legal aid group Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. The group, along with the ACLU, has sued for the release of medically vulnerable clients from Eloy and from the La Palma Correctional Center a few miles away.

LAURA BELOUS: There's no way to be safely detained during a pandemic.

REZNICK: At La Palma, detainees say they've been forced to clean medical wards without enough protective gear. At Eloy, they say they don't have regular access to showers. Laura Belous says complaints have continued even after a judge ordered the facilities to make changes to keep people safe.

BELOUS: I think almost every conversation that I've had with clients has kind of resulted in just, like, people just saying, I'm scared, I'm worried, I can't be here anymore.

REZNICK: CoreCivic, the company that runs Eloy and La Palma, insisted that it can keep detainees safe. A spokesman said they do have access to protective gear, showers and testing and aren't forced to work. He also said the facilities are way under capacity, so detainees can social distance. Still, immigrants like Chilel are terrified. She says, lately, she's had headaches and bad body aches, but she's been waiting for weeks to see a doctor.

CHILEL: (Through interpreter) It's frustrating. I always feel like I'm between life and death.

REZNICK: Chilel's lawyers have filed requests for humanitarian parole and are exploring other legal avenues to get her released as the pandemic is only getting worse. For NPR News, I'm Alisa Reznick in Tucson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alisa Reznick