Migrants held in US detention centers at the mercy of COVID-19
Photo of a US Department of Homeland Security bus at the entrance to the Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego, California on May 21, 2020. EFE-EPA/ Alex Segura
Photo showing the sign at the entrance to the Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego, California, on May 21, 2020. EFE-EPA/ Alex Segura
By Alex Segura Lozano and Laura Barros
Los Angeles/Washington, May 28 (efe-epa).- "They told us to drink a lot of water and to gargle with salt (water)." With no medications to alleviate the pain, this was the only semi-treatment that Jose Juan Prieto received when he became infected with the coronavirus at a US detention center before he was deported to Mexico after recovering.
His case is one of the more extreme ones regarding how the pandemic has hit many centers of this kind in the US, where thousands of migrants are housed and social distancing is almost impossible.
At the Otay Mesa Detention Center in California, the lack of facemasks and gloves at the beginning of the health crisis was one of the things that made Prieto nervous.
His concern was not unfounded, since the center has been one of the facilities housing migrants that has been hardest hit so far during the pandemic, with 155 of the 1,201 coronavirus cases confirmed among the population in custody by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement service.
The installation is surrounded by hills in an area with an arid climate and one feels a sense of asphyxiation upon entering because of the strict security measures.
There are also four state prisons and a detention center for minors in the maximum security complex where Prieto was held - in the migrants center - starting in January, when the pandemic was just a distant problem of no immediate relevance.
However, the coronavirus got into the Otay Mesa center in March when a security guard tested positive for Covid-19 and it quickly spread among the staff and detainees.
Without knowing exactly how, Prieto came down with the virus a month later and spent the next two weeks suffering through it before recovering and then being immediately deported to Mexico.
Social distancing is impossible at Otay Mesa, where a number of people sleep in the same cell, and even if one is sick he is not isolated and the only available remedies are to gargle with salt water and wash one's hands.
"There were eight beds, all occupied," Prieto - born in Zamora in the Mexican state of Michoacan - recalled regarding his convalescence in a telephone conversation with EFE from the Mexican border city of Tijuana, where he has been staying since he was deported.
He said he was most afraid when he saw them carry away one of the other "really sick" detainees on a stretcher, a situation that made him fear for his own health and wellbeing.
One of the detainees who got sick there was Carlos Escobedo, who on May 6 became the first migrant to die in US custody since falling ill with Covid-19.
The situation in Otay Mesa is not unusual and it's being repeated at other migrant centers across the US, such as in the Catahoula Correctional Center in Louisiana, where Baldomero, a Guatemalan who has been held for almost nine months, uneasily watches the increasing number of Covid-19 cases among his fellow detainees without knowing for certain whether he himself has been infected.
Catahoula currently houses between 600-700 immigrants, of whom 60 have become infected with the coronavirus, but there are never any announcements when someone tests positive, and it's merely a rumor that someone is sick with Covid-19 that's passed around when a detainee is separated and isolated.
Baldomero has seen how several of the 80 people in his section of the center were separated from the others, without anyone giving them any explanations.
"They were here with us, we were chatting with them and we even gave them a hug when they left ... we shook hands," he said.
And now he doesn't know whether he's been infected, since the only things he has to protect himself with are his facemask and his soap.
Soap is pretty scarce because the staff only provide one bar to wash one's body, unless a detainee has the money to buy more on his own account in the store in the center, but in Baldomero's case, suffering from pain in his kidneys which he treats with acetaminophen, that's impossible.
He spoke with EFE inside the Catahoula center, saying that up until last August, when he was detained in a raid to nab illegal migrants, he was the main source of income for his family consisting of two children, ages 2 and 7, and a wife who cannot work due to vision problems.
Conditions at the detention centers have set off alarms in several Latin American countries, like Mexico, whose strategy is based on demanding respect from the US.
The telephone of Mexico's consul in San Diego, California, Carlos Gonzalez, has not stopped ringing with hundreds of calls from relatives and detainees at Otay Mesa.
Gonzalez knows firsthand the situation inside the centers since he is one of the Mexican diplomats most heavily involved in defending the migrants, and he calls the situation distressing.
His main concern is the lack of respect for the prisoners' human rights and for due process, and when consulted by EFE he listed the "high risk" conditions to which the detainees are exposed, including the scarce supply of available facemasks, sharing a cell with infected detainees and not receiving the necessary medical attention when one develops symptoms apart from fever.
These factors facilitate the spread of Covid-19 in the centers, according to a recent study projecting a significant impact on immigrants and local health care if ICE detention populations are not decreased.
One of the study's authors, Traci Green, an epidemiologist at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, said in remarks to EFE that closed installations that keep people very close to one another "are possible hotspots for Covid-19 now and in the near future."