A 57-year-old man from El Salvador who was being held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in California died from Covid-19 on Wednesday. This is the first confirmed death from the coronavirus at an ICE detention center.
Carlos Escobar-Mejia has been detained at the center since Jan. 10 after having lived in the U.S. for 40 years. While at the detention center, he was on a list of people who are medically vulnerable to the virus and are therefore eligible for immediate release but was hospitalized before the list was fully put together.
According to ICE, 705 out of 1,460 detainees tested positive for Covid-19. At the Otay Mesa center alone, there are 140 cases of Covid-19 out of the 649 detainees there, making it the facility with the largest number of positive tests among detainees. The Otay Mesa center is owned by the private prison company CoreCivic, which has not commented on the situation there.
ICE maintains that it is caring for its detainees in light of the pandemic, but detainees have said that they do not have enough space to socially distance, that they do not have enough clean masks, and that guards are not adhering to CDC guidelines to wear masks and gloves. They have reported that sick detainees are not being tested and have instead been told to gargle with salt water, and have then been sent back to the other detainees. In April, detainees at Otay Mesa went on a hunger strike to protest pandemic conditions in the ICE detention center. In March, advocacy groups donated hundreds of masks for detainees at the center but the donation was refused.
Two medical experts contracted by the Department of Homeland Security in March warned about the dangers of Covid-19 in ICE detention centers both to detained populations and to the general population as a whole. Because of demands from immigrant rights advocacy groups, hundreds of ICE detainees have been released due to the pandemic, but an estimated 30,000 remain in custody according to reports from ICE.
Sources: NPR 05/07/20, CNN 05/06/20, KPBS 04/17/20