A Guatemalan man died of COVID-19 on Sunday while in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), marking the second immigrant COVID-19 related death in ICE custody.
Santiago Baten-Oxlaj, 34, was first arrested in March for charges of driving under the influence. He was granted a voluntary departure to Guatemala and was awaiting the transfer in a Georgia facility. He was admitted to a hospital for treatment on April 17.
The first immigrant to die in ICE custody, Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejía, passed away in California earlier this month. He was 57 and had lived in the United States since the 1980s.
As of May 16, 1,201 immigrants in ICE custody have tested positive for COVID-19, around half of the 2,394 total tested. The statistic has not been updated by the agency since then. At the facility where Baten-Oxlaj was detained, 16 people tested positive.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, immigration advocates and medical experts have warned that close quarters in detention centers make detainees vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. The agency has released more than 900 immigrants so far based on their age and pre-existing medical conditions. Federal judges have ordered the release of almost 400 immigrants.
As of last week, ICE still had more than 26,000 in detention, out of which more than 4,600 are asylum seekers who have shown a credible fear for persecution in their home countries.
Federal lawmakers have also called for more oversight in ICE facilities. Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jamie Raskin of the House Oversight committee wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) criticizing ICE’s inadequate response to the pandemic.
“At each step of the way, the agency has waited rather than acted, prioritizing continued detention of thousands of non-violent detainees regardless of the life-and-death consequences for immigrants, employees, contractors, or their families,” the letter said.
Immigrants in detention facilities have been concerned about the spread of coronavirus for months. Since March, there have been at least 25 hunger strikes in detention centers across the country, the same number of strikes that would normally occur over a year.
A clash between immigrants and officers happened May 1 in a Massachusetts facility over the officers responded violently to immigrants’ request for COVID-19 testing, according to Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights who represents some of the detained immigrants. A message was left on a window that read “HELP US.”
Sources: Buzzfeed News 05/24/20; CBS News 05/25/20; Business Insider 05/25/20; CNN 05/22/20.