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Man feared death from COVID-19 inside immigrant prison

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When COVID-19 hit the U.S., Silvio Urbina Rojas began to wonder if he’d die in an immigrant prison. 

He slept in a bed that was only about three feet from another man’s. About 240 men were forced to breathe the same air in a confined space where the coronavirus could be inhaled, and they shared only six toilets, 12 sinks and 12 showers.

Maintaining a social distance of at least six feet – as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep the coronavirus from spreading – was impossible, especially when the men were forced to wait right next to each other in line to do anything, even use the restroom.   

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which operates the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Mississippi, where Rojas was imprisoned for four months before he was detained an additional nine months in various other facilities, did nothing to protect the men under its care from the virus, Rojas said.

“ICE needs to let people out,” he said. “How can it be possible for everyone to be detained for so long, and then longer during this virus? I think people will die in detention. It’s not safe; it’s terrifying.”    

Rojas was a class member in Heredia Mons v. McAleenan, a federal class action lawsuit that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana filed in May 2019 on behalf of 12 plaintiffs and those similarly situated. The New Orleans ICE Field Office confined them to remote prisons and categorically denied their release, despite a 2009 policy directing ICE to release asylum-seekers who lawfully present themselves at official ports of entry, establish their identity and show that they are not a danger or flight risk.

In March, the SPLC and the ACLU filed an emergency motion for a COVID-19 preliminary injunction that would restore access to parole for asylum seekers who had been detained indefinitely across the Deep South. After the organizations noted that Rojas had been repeatedly denied parole, he was released on April 3.  

But by then, he had already been in a situation that could have easily exposed him to the coronavirus. Rojas has not shown any symptoms of COVID-19, but he has not been tested, either.

“It is appalling that the New Orleans ICE Field Office went from granting 75% of parole requests in 2016 to now less than 20% when it oversees custody for twice the number of asylum-seekers than it did in 2016 – all of whom pose no risk to the community and are facing an unprecedented, lethal pandemic,” said Mich Gonzalez, a staff attorney for the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project.  

By late March, Rojas and other detainees had not received any information from ICE about the pandemic, even as it made its way into detention centers.     

“ICE just ignored it,” said Rojas, 60. “We only found out about it through the television. ICE didn’t explain anything to us; they didn’t even tell us it was dangerous. They didn’t provide us ways to protect ourselves. We were afraid; we were always afraid.”     

At Adams, Rojas – who suffers from hypertension and a heart murmur – said that at first, ICE ignored men who presented symptoms that could be signs of COVID-19, like coughing or fever. They were told to “make a request” to see a member of the medical staff. That process, he said, took seven days.   

“ICE won’t attend to you if you say you’re sick,” Rojas said. “The specialists don’t come quickly. For those not ‘obviously’ sick, you have to wait at least a week to see a doctor.”

Ortega’s ‘communist regime’

Adams was the fifth place Rojas had been detained or transferred to since presenting himself at the San Ysidro port of entry near San Diego, California, in January 2019. He and his nephew had fled violent, political persecution in Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega was punishing those who fought against what Rojas called Ortega’s “communist regime.”     

After traveling through Honduras and Guatemala, Rojas and his nephew, Alberto Lovo Rojas, were put on a waitlist of people seeking asylum. As part of President Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy – which the SPLC is challenging in federal court – the two men were forced to sleep on the grimy streets of Tijuana, Mexico, until their number was called. They had little to protect themselves from the cold. Finally, after one month of waiting, their numbers were called.     

At the U.S.-Mexico border, Rojas was separated from his nephew before Rojas was transferred to a hielera – a frigid, cramped holding facility used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection – where he slept on a concrete floor for eight days. He was later transferred to a detention center in San Luis, Arizona, then to another one in Tallahatchie, Mississippi, where he took the interview that validated his fear of home. Then he went to another detention facility in Ferriday, Louisiana, before he was brought to Adams last November.   

He would wait another four months at Adams before his parole was granted. During his time in immigrant detention, COVID-19 was first reported in the Hubei province of China in November. The first confirmed case of the virus in the U.S. came in January of this year.   

As Rojas and others detained at Adams heard the news that COVID-19 had made its way to the U.S., he said there was nothing they could do but be terrified. 

“I was in a state of panic the entire time – a state of pure panic,” he said in Spanish during an interview with the SPLC. “We were all jammed together. I was scared for my life, we all were.”    

‘A terrible time’

Rojas was released three days after a guard at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia – another Deep South immigrant prison – contracted the virus.

Many of the men detained with Rojas at Adams were over age 55 and suffered from diabetes, asthma or hypertension.

“ICE took them out and put them away,” Rojas said. “About eight people had fevers during that time. I believe ICE isolated them, but I don’t know where they put them. We were stuck together without any protection, without gloves, without anything. It’s very dangerous in there.”

People were growing desperate for their release, he said. None of the guards wore masks as protection from the coronavirus.

“The officers ... do not care about our safety or health,” he said. “They yell at us for everything. If we ask questions or plead for help, they yell and reprimand us. They don’t care about immigrants detained before or after the virus. This is a terrible time.” 

Testing his limits

Rojas’ nephew Alberto is still stuck in detention at LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, Louisiana. He only has one functioning kidney. The two men fled Nicaragua after Rojas peacefully protested against the Ortega regime in April 2018. Later that day, Rojas was beaten by Nicaraguan paramilitary officers who shot him twice, resulting in injuries to his left arm and his genitals.

After being hospitalized, Rojas went into hiding, moving from place to place. He didn’t feel safe, he said.     

“The government was punishing anyone who was against them,” he said. “For four months, nobody entered or left Nicaragua, but the protesting continued. If you’re against their ideology – if you want a democracy – they’ll kill you.”

Together, Rojas and Alberto – who had suffered abuse similar to that of his uncle in Nicaragua – left their home country in September 2018. When they reached the Mexican border, however, the danger escalated.

A group of criminals kidnapped them and held them for ransom, seeking payment from their families. When no one could pay the kidnappers, they robbed Rojas and his nephew and dumped their naked bodies in the mountains, leaving them for dead.   

After Rojas and his nephew eventually arrived and were detained in the U.S., Rojas learned about his right to apply for parole after passing the credible fear interview in Tallahatchie.

But a few days later, he was denied parole before he could apply for it. The letter he received – which was in English, a language Rojas is only beginning to learn – said he had been determined a “flight risk” but did not provide a reason.

During his detention, Rojas had a sponsor in Spokane, Washington, ready to welcome him. At Adams, Rojas presented the immigration judge with documents testifying to the injuries he suffered in Nicaragua, along with his medical records. But the judge dismissed the evidence, saying the scar that ran along Rojas’ elbow was simply the result of a cigarette burn – not the kidnappers’ assault. 

“I cried so hard when the judge denied me asylum,” Rojas said. “I told him he had made a mistake, but he didn’t believe me.”

The duration of his detention tested his limits. He missed the wife and children he was forced to leave behind in Nicaragua. He worried for Alberto, who was trapped at LaSalle. At Adams, he couldn’t sleep. His bunk bed was too stiff. Because the food was terrible, he ate very little. When he wanted a coffee from the commissary, it cost him $4. He said that while some guards treated him decently, many had an “aggressive attitude.”    

“ICE doesn’t realize we’re human, they think immigrants are delinquents,” Rojas said. “We’re not delinquents; we’re people. People who live and breathe, just like them. They want us to go back to our country, but what are we to do? Die under Daniel Ortega’s dictatorship?”   

Since his release earlier this month, Rojas has been living in Spokane, learning English and preparing to work and continue fighting for asylum. While he is grateful for his freedom, he fears that ICE will continue to deny it to other immigrants – even in the midst of a global pandemic.     

“I don’t want to be a burden for anyone,” Rojas said. “I’m here to live peacefully – finally. [Immigrants] appreciate the U.S. government; we’re not against it. But ICE won’t let people out, even now. I’m terrified for everyone.”

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images