By Laura Gottesdiener
MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) - In early June, asylum seeker Jose Munoz decided it was time to flee for his life - by getting deported from a Texas immigration detention center where coronavirus was sweeping through the population and going home to El Salvador.
As the number of COVID-19 cases rose in the Houston Contract Detention Facility - it has had at least 105, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data - Munoz said he had few ways to protect himself from exposure except for a cloth face mask. On June 1, there were 375 detainees housed in the facility, according ICE data.
Although at 19 he would not normally be at risk from complications from the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, Munoz worried his high cholesterol, a comorbidity found in some patients who died, made him vulnerable.
Months earlier, the Salvadoran student had sought asylum in the United States after he says he was attacked for refusing to transport drugs for a gang, which he declined to name, citing concerns for his safety. His lawyer and an affidavit signed by Munoz and reviewed by Reuters were consistent with his account. But by June, he feared his life was hanging in the balance, knowing that the next ruling in his asylum case would be months away if he chose to keep fighting.
"I felt like it was more dangerous than back in my country," he said in a telephone interview last month from El Salvador.
Reuters spoke to more than 30 lawyers, immigration advocates, detainees and their family members who said the risks of contracting COVID-19 inside detention facilities have driven people to seek deportation.
Fifteen immigration lawyers and advocates, who together say they have received hundreds of requests from detainees seeking to leave facilities in eight U.S. states for health reasons, told Reuters they are seeing increases in the number of people considering abandoning their cases. Reuters found 12 cases of detainees who stopped fighting their cases and instead agreed to deportation or voluntary departure due to the pandemic.
An ICE spokeswoman told Reuters the agency respects migrants' rights to make decisions regarding whether to pursue or forego their cases.
Reuters couldn’t determine if the total number of people voluntarily seeking deportation is on the rise.
Samuel Cole, a U.S. immigration judge who spoke to Reuters as communications director for the National Association of Immigration Judges, said he saw an increase in migrants seeking to leave detention in the early months of the pandemic - even if it meant abandoning their cases.
"There were definitely respondents who expressed fear of getting sick in detention and wanted to get out as fear of COVID was sweeping the country," Cole said.
ACCESS TO MASKS, HAND SANITIZER
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has dialed back arrests and released some immigrants on parole, but has come under fire for shifting detainees between facilities during the pandemic, which ICE has said is part of its effort to stem the spread of the virus and to promote social distancing. The agency has also been criticized for deporting more than a hundred infected people to their home countries.
ICE data shows 2,742 people in ICE detention centers, and 45 ICE employees, have tested positive for COVID-19. Two migrants with the disease have died. Thousands of others who could be more vulnerable if they get infected remain in custody, according to ICE data included in a June 24 court filing as part of a class-action lawsuit over medical care in ICE facilities.
The ICE spokeswoman said the agency weighs a person's criminal record, potential threat to public safety and flight risk, as well as any national security concerns, when evaluating whether to grant discretionary release.
One migrant interviewed for this story tested positive for COVID-19 while in detention at the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico, according to ICE. A second migrant tested positive on May 14, according to El Rio Health in Arizona, the same day U.S. documents show he was released from ICE custody.
Many of the 14 current and former detainees interviewed by Reuters said they did not have access to hygiene products such as hand soap and disinfectants. Six detainees said they were exposed to other detainees who had fevers, persistent coughs, or body aches, which can be symptoms of the virus.
One current detainee said those who voiced health concerns were punished with solitary confinement, a claim echoed by lawyers and advocates working in detention centers in four different states.
"ICE fully respects the rights of detainees to voice their concerns without interference and does not retaliate in any way," the ICE spokeswoman told Reuters.
A second ICE spokeswoman said the agency provided soap in washing areas and sanitizer throughout the centers "whenever possible," adding that ICE had taken steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and to "safeguard the health and well-being of detainees, staff, and others at our detention facilities."
Several lawyers told Reuters they see the agency’s handling of the pandemic inside its detention centers as part of the U.S. government’s broader effort to limit immigration.
"I've come to think it's a strategy to get people to say: 'I'm scared to death, I can't stand it anymore, just deport me,'" said Margo Cowan, supervisor at the Pima County Public Defender's Office in Arizona, who has practiced immigration law for more than three decades.
The first ICE spokeswoman told Reuters the agency fully respects immigrants' rights to due process.
"Any alien who has a claim to relief, protection under the law, or basis to remain in the United States is allowed to remain in the U.S. legally," she said.
A DHS internal watchdog report based on a survey of 188 ICE detention centers shows that about 90% of ICE detention centers said they had enough masks and liquid soap for detainees. More than a third reported not having enough hand sanitizer for detainees. Twelve percent of facilities said they did not have the capacity to isolate or quarantine a detainee who tested positive for COVID-19. A number of facilities said social distancing was a challenge given space restrictions.
Patricia Jimenez, a Mexican asylum seeker who said she fled to the United States after being kidnapped by unknown gunmen, decided to drop her case and seek deportation as the coronavirus swept through the Eloy Federal Contract Facility in Arizona, which has reported 222 COVID-19 cases, the second-largest outbreak in an ICE detention center. Her account was confirmed by her lawyer and her aunt.
"I'm really scared that I might get sick and never see my son again," she told Reuters in a call in late June from the center, where she's awaiting deportation.
Jimenez said she fears returning to Mexico.
"But at this moment, I'm more afraid of being here," she said, citing the death of a guard who she says she had contact with in the facility's kitchen, where she had worked. CoreCivic, the company that operates the center, said the death was from "potential COVID-19-related issues."
In a statement, a representative of CoreCivic said the company is committed to the safety of its detainees and employees, adding that Jimenez's claims "do not reflect the affirmative, proactive measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 our facility has been taking for months."
Lucas Castro, a Mexican asylum seeker with diabetes, which makes people vulnerable to complications from the virus, said he also requested deportation after fearing for his life more in detention than back home, where he said he was brutally beaten by a drug gang last year. His account was supported by his wife and the transcript of his "credible-fear" interview, which is part of the asylum process and was reviewed by Reuters.
Eight migrants, including Castro, told Reuters that officials tried to use detainees' health concerns to push them into agreeing to their deportation.
At Arizona's La Palma Correctional Facility, where Castro was held, he said detainees frequently requested information about the pandemic and whether they could be granted humanitarian parole or other forms of release.
"Instead, a deportation officer always arrived and told us that if we were genuinely afraid then we should just sign for our deportation," Castro said. Two other former detainees in the same facility echoed Castro's account. Castro said his fear of the virus prompted him to ask a judge for deportation, which U.S. records show was ordered in late May.
The second ICE spokeswoman said the agency does not have a policy of encouraging detainees who raise health concerns related to COVID-19 to sign for deportation. She added that La Palma Correctional Facility does not have a record of a complaint lodged by Castro regarding the alleged staff comments.
Pandemic-related logjams within the immigration system have also delayed the repatriation of some migrants.
Guatemalan asylum-seeker Timoteo Vicente said he chose not to appeal a negative ruling in his case in March in part because he deemed the medical care inside the Tacoma ICE Processing Center in Washington State inadequate, leading him to worry about its ability to respond to the pandemic.
In a statement, a representative for GEO Group, the company that contracts with ICE to run the facility, said: "We take our responsibility to ensure the health and safety of all those in our care and our employees with the utmost seriousness."
Three months later, Vicente is still stranded in detention, awaiting his deportation.
"I'm in an abyss," Vicente told Reuters in a call from the detention center. "I don't know what's going to happen."
(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener; Additional reporting by Reade Levinson; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Paul Simao)