'We're gonna die': migrants in US jail beg for deportation due to Covid-19 exposure

Sam Levin in Los Angeles
Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

Detainees in a US immigration jail are begging to be released after potential Covid-19 exposure, saying the conditions are so brutal that they would rather suffer deportation than remain locked up.

Three men incarcerated at the Winn correctional center in a remote part of Louisiana told the Guardian that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) has isolated 44 of them together after they were possibly exposed to coronavirus. Some of the detainees are so desperate to leave that they are seeking voluntary deportation. They say their cries for masks, hand sanitizer, gloves and cleaning supplies have gone ignored, including for elderly detainees and those with asthma.

In a series of phone calls, the men described a nightmare ordeal over the last two weeks, citing rampant mistreatment and a terrifying lack of information from Ice after they learned they were under some kind of quarantine. They also said that seven of their fellow detainees were deported on a flight to Colombia this week, four days into a 14-day quarantine period, which would appear to violate basic standards of coronavirus containment.

Their firsthand accounts escalate concerns that human rights lawyers have been raising for weeks, that Ice jails could become death traps during the pandemic and that the only way to save lives and slow the spread is to release people en masse.

“People are writing to the judge that they want to be deported as soon as possible. They don’t want to continue fighting,” said a detainee from El Salvador in his 30s, who declined to give his name. He said he was trying to self-deport and was also helping an asylum seeker seek deportation. “He told me, ‘I’d prefer to go home instead of being in this jail.’ … Ice has to release all the people, immediately.”

One of the detainees speaking out and advocating for the release of immigrant prisoners is Dr Sirous Asgari, an Iranian scientist who was exonerated in a US trial last year but continues to face detention. The 59-year-old professor shared his story with the Guardian last week, prompting Iran’s foreign minister to call for his release.

The men were first detained at the Alexandria staging facility (ASF) in Louisiana, where Asgari said Ice was continuing to bring in new detainees from around the country in cramped quarters where they were denied masks and basic supplies to protect themselves.

Then on 26 March, ASF staff put up a sign outside the pod where they slept, which said the room was under “medical observation” due to the possibility of exposure, saying the risk was “high”, Asgari recounted this week. He heard that a detainee had a fever. But Ice, he alleged, gave the detainees no information and declined to tell them whether it was Covid-19.

“Everybody got panicked,” he said, describing a chaotic scene of the detainees yelling for help and information. “We had two elderly people in their 70s, younger people with respiratory problems. One guy is crying, saying, ‘My life is in danger, we have been exposed.’ People were screaming, ‘Give us masks!’ … ‘We’re gonna die!’”

One officer suggested there was nothing to worry about, but then staff kept the pod completely isolated from other detainees, suggesting they were under quarantine, Asgari said. Despite what seemed to be a strict quarantine, seven of them were deported to Colombia a few days later, he said.

Roughly 30 men who remained behind were then taken to Winn, but were still given no information, the detainees said. But once they had medical visits, he said they confirmed their fears after asking the nurse to look at their records, which all said “possible exposure to Covid-19” and listed as 8 April as a “release date” which would be the end of a 14-day quarantine period. The men joined a dozen other detainees in that facility who were also suspected of having exposure, Asgari said.

Bryan Cox, an Ice spokesman, declined to respond to many of their specific claims, but said no detainee has tested positive for Covid-19 at ASF. He did not answer questions about whether the men were given tests or whether there was a direct exposure or quarantine. He said Ice groups detainees in “medical cohorts”, meaning separating potential Covid-19 patients from others, but said that a “cohort for potential exposure does not mean a person has been exposed”.

He said the men were spreading “unsubstantiated rumor and false allegations”, but did not offer specifics.

“We are just a number to them. They don’t care,” said a detainee in his 30s who is facing deportation to Guatemala, and was also moved from ASF to Winn alongside Asgari. “I’m really afraid … They put you in jail with all these people and you don’t know where they’ve come from. It doesn’t make any sense.”

This detainee said he had lived in the US for more than a decade and that he was arrested in New York in mid-March as Ice continued its raids and arrests amid the worsening pandemic. He said he has little information about his case and is fighting to get out: “I’m trying to do something, but I can’t. I haven’t seen a judge, nothing. They are just moving me around.”

‘Disgusting’ conditions and silence from Ice

The men said the conditions at Winn were appalling. The detainees are responsible for all cleaning, and there is a single shower and only two toilets for all 44 of them to share. They are also sleeping on beds roughly two feet apart from each other, and the humidity when they first arrived left the sheets wet and beds rusted, they alleged.

“When we got inside, everyone was absolutely shocked at the living conditions,” said Asgari, who has a history of respiratory problems and is at risk of death. “It’s frustrating, disgusting and humiliating. We get outside for one hour a day. That’s the only good thing.”

By Friday, a majority of the detainees were suffering from some kind of cold, according to Asgari, who said he now has a bad cough and fears it will infect his lungs. They don’t have fevers, and he said he hopes it’s not coronavirus.

A bed at the Winn correctional center where some migrants have been isolated after exposure to coronavirus. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

The man from El Salvador said the staff at Winn were taking their temperatures daily, but otherwise doing little else related to Covid-19 prevention. He said Ice should consider releasing them in the US for their own safety, noting that he didn’t know the status of the outbreak in El Salvador and whether it would be dangerous to return. But ultimately, he said he was desperate to get out, fearing staff could bring the virus to the facility or that he could be moved again and exposed to hundreds more detainees in other jails.

One Ice officer told him he could submit a formal request and get a reply in seven or eight days, he said: “I want to know what is happening with us. They don’t answer, nothing.”

On Friday, the man from El Salvador was deported, according to Asgari.

People are seeking asylum and they are saying, ‘Just send me back.’ That speaks to the horrific conditions

Mehrnoush Yazdanyar

Asgari has also been trying to self-deport to Iran, where there is a massive Covid-19 outbreak.

“They are asking to be sent anywhere but there,” said Mehrnoush Yazdanyar, an attorney who has talked to multiple Winn detainees and is helping Asgari’s family. “People are seeking asylum and they are saying, ‘Just send me back.’ That speaks to the horrific conditions.”

Cox, the Ice spokesman, said all detainees are screened upon arrival to facilities and that Ice conducts Covid-19 testing in accordance with US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines. He said Ice provides soap and “other appropriate cleaning supplies” and “necessary and appropriate medical care” to detainees.

Advocates have raised similar complaints about Ice conditions across the country. Karlyn Kurichety, an attorney with immigrant rights group Al Otro Lado, said that at California’s largest Ice jail, detainees lack basic sanitation supplies and that Ice has placed some detainees in quarantine without telling them why.

“We’re concerned there’s going to be a massive outbreak in one of these facilities, and literally thousands of people could die,” she said.