_ Detainees say officials give them little information and are not
doing enough to reduce their risk. _
Protesters rallied outside a federal detention center in Elizabeth,
N.J. last year in response to President Donald Trump's recent
executive order on immigration., (Marisa Iati/ NJ Advance Media for
Panic has gripped an immigrant detention center in New Jersey where a
staffer tested positive for COVID-19 last week
according to several detainees who complained in telephone interviews
that officials have shared little information, at times failed to give
them soap and are not doing enough to protect them from contagion.
The positive coronavirus test from a medical staffer at the Elizabeth
Detention Center was the first known case nationwide at an immigrant
detention facility, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
confirmed last Thursday.
Three detainees told The Marshall Project that officials have done
little to improve sanitary conditions inside. They have gone as many
as three days without hand soap, the detainees said, and no one has
received gloves or masks to protect themselves. They described a
facility in which immigrants, dozens of them sleeping in each common
dorm, are alarmed as the pandemic spreads outside.
“Everybody’s scared. It’s not just us. Everybody’s scared,”
said one of the immigrants at Elizabeth, a man who asked to be
identified only by his first name, Ian. He and the other two detainees
said that they and others went on a hunger strike Friday.
ICE officials have not reported a positive COVID-19 test among
detainees at Elizabeth or any other detention facility in the country.
A spokesperson for the agency said Monday that immigrants at Elizabeth
“have soap,” but declined to answer other questions about the
assertions made by the detainees and attorneys representing the men.
The agency last week suspended social visits to centers nationwide and
said it has a pandemic workforce protection plan and that it has
supplied facilities with respirators and protective gear.
Still, many immigrants detained around the country share concerns
about the virus. Ten detainees have been quarantined at Aurora
Contract Detention Facility
[[link removed]] near
Denver, Colorado, igniting fears among others held there. In
Massachusetts, more than 50 detainees at a county jail signed a
letter protesting conditions
[[link removed]] they
said put them at risk. At the Essex detention center in New Jersey,
some detainees last week went on a hunger strike
[[link removed]] over
Ian, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, said he’s been held at the
Elizabeth center for over seven months. According to Ian and the two
other detainees there, it wasn’t until this past Friday that medical
staff spoke to them in detail about the coronavirus. When detainees
asked whether anyone was sick with the virus, they were told that a
guard had tested positive and that the individual was not medical
ICE had confirmed to The Marshall Project the day before that the
employee who tested positive was a medical employee. The agency Monday
declined to comment on the apparent discrepancy.
Many of the detainees enter the medical ward every day to take
medications or get checkups for pre-existing conditions. ICE last week
said the employee who tested positive had limited contact with
Nicolás, a detainee from Mexico, said a supervisor earlier this month
posted a flyer in the dorm that said no new detainees would be brought
in as a precaution against the virus, but immigrants continue to
The flyer was “saying that they’re not bringing no more people in
because [of] the virus…. That’s what they say, but they didn’t.
They’re still bringing people,” Nicolás said.
“The major problem is they’re not telling us the truth,” said
Emmanuel, an immigrant from Nigeria, who is also detained at
Elizabeth. He said on Friday, when he and others in his unit went on
hunger strike, medical staff came to speak with them about
coronavirus. “The [CoreCivic] officers say one thing, the ICE
officer says another thing, the warden says another thing.”
CoreCivic is a private company that operates the facility under
contract with ICE.
Emmanuel said he also is worried about his wife outside, and whether
she might get sick.
“It’s one thing to be dealing with a crisis, it’s another when
you’re dealing with the crisis without your loved ones,” he said.
“I’m very depressed, I’m very frustrated. And I’m scared.
Sometimes I feel like ending it all.”
The staffer regularly in charge of cleaning their dorm has not been
there, Ian said, and other officers filling in were doing the bare
“All they would do is come take the garbage out. That’s it,” Ian
said. “They have not provided us with any face masks, no gloves. All
we get is the disinfectant every day to clean [the dormitory].”
Ian, who said he has been living in the U.S. for more than 20 years,
has been detained while awaiting a decision on a spousal visa. His
wife of 14 years, Vanessa, is an American citizen. They have two
children together, a 13-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl, in addition
to her 21-year-old daughter.
Vanessa said she fears for her husband if he gets sick inside.
“I’m afraid that if he doesn’t come out, I don’t know what’s
going to happen,” she said. “I can’t let my mind go to that.”
With schools closed and her children at home, she’s been working the
night shift monitoring patients on medical equipment at Newark’s
Beth Israel hospital, five miles from the detention facility, so she
can care for the children during the day.
“As much as I’m trying here, he is my backbone with the kids. And
I pray to God he can get out and help,” she said.
Meanwhile, Ian is panicking. He said he has a condition in which one
of his heart valves doesn’t close tightly enough. With a
pre-existing sickness, he fears the worst if he contracts COVID-19.
“I’m really scared of getting sick. ‘Cause with my condition, I
don’t know how my body would adapt to it,” he said.
But he said he’s stopped going to the detention center’s medical
unit for his chest pains, because the visits yield little help.
“You go to medical with any issue—You go with a chest pain, they
give you Ibuprofen; you go with a back pain, they give you Ibuprofen;
you go with a headache, they give you Ibuprofen; you go with an upset
stomach, they give you Ibuprofen. What is the purpose?” he said.
At night, Ian says he can't sleep. He’s worried about a detainee who
he said arrived last week to his 40-person dormitory. Ian said the man
told him he had come from China, where the outbreak began. The man has
been coughing uncontrollably, sneezing and appears sick, Ian and
Emmanuel said. They said officials have not told them anything about
the man’s health, or whether he’s been tested.
ICE declined to comment on their assertions about the man.
Rumors continue to spread inside the facility about who may be sick,
Ian said, and at this point he doesn’t trust officials are being
honest about the risk to detainees.
“We have gotten all these different, contradicting stories about the
virus, who has it, who [doesn’t],” he said. “And we’re at the
point now where we don’t know who or what to believe.”
_Emily Kassie [[link removed]],
director of visual projects, is an Emmy-nominated reporter and
filmmaker who has covered corruption and abuse internationally._