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As a resident of the South Bay in San Diego, I have been extremely concerned to learn that just a few miles away the Otay Mesa Detention Center is operating as the national epicenter of the Coronavirus for immigrants in detention. According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 162 detainees at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19 as of June 11th – the greatest number of any immigration facility in the country. The Otay Mesa facility was also the site of the first immigration detainee death from the coronavirus. On May 6, Carlos Ernesto Escobar, a 57-year-old detainee from El Salvador, died as a result of contracting the virus while detained in Otay Mesa. Prior to Escobar’s death, detainees and advocates had been sounding the alarm about the fact that conditions in the facility make it impossible to achieve the public health standards recommended by federal and local authorities to minimize the spread of the virus.
Additionally, as of June 11th, there had been 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among ICE employees working at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, but ICE has not disclosed whether any of the guards who work for CoreCivic, the private prison company that runs the facility, have tested positive. As a community member, I’m concerned about the risk to surrounding residents as employees from the site travel back and forth from the facilities to our neighborhoods.
My organization, the Center for American Progress, has called on ICE to prioritize public health measures and expedite the release of low-risk and vulnerable detainees. Although the Department of Homeland Security has aimed to decrease the detained population at each of its facilities to 70 percent or less, according to a May 15 article 544 detainees remain at Otay Mesa, including asylum-seekers like Elsy, who has been permitted by ICE to leave the facility only if she can post a $15,000 bond. Because Elsy has been unable to pay the bond, she has remained at Otay Mesa for roughly eight months.
Unfortunately, even with the alarming increase in COVID-19 positive cases within detention centers, hate groups continue to push anti-immigrant policies over common sense and public health. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, an organization designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, criticized ICE’s initial commitment to focus its enforcement efforts on individuals who are a threat to public safety by stating that such measures “allows lawbreakers to continue living in the United States without fear.” FAIR, however, has failed to acknowledge the safe alternatives to detention that do not place vulnerable detainees under risk, such as releasing low-risk and vulnerable populations by granting parole and stipulating to bond requests.
To no surprise, FAIR’s National Board of Advisors includes Sheriff Tom Hodgson of Bristol County, Massachusetts, who has publicly opposed releasing vulnerable detainees by saying that they have better access to medical care inside of the facilities than out in the community. Ironically, a federal judge recently found that Hodgson and ICE had deliberately disregarded the health of immigrant detainees under their care during the pandemic since both had failed to conduct necessary COVID-19 testing and contact tracing of exposed individuals.
Most concerningly, FAIR has strong allies within the administration, having previously supported Ken Cuccinelli, the senior official performing the duties of the deputy secretary of homeland security, when he was nominated to be director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and invited him to be a guest at their annual radio row and press conference. It was Cuccinelli, executing on FAIR’s agenda, who walked back an announcement by ICE Acting Director Matt Albence directing immigration authorities to significantly modify their enforcement practices during the coronavirus pandemic. One month later, Albence told a congressional committee after completing its review of detention records, “ICE released fewer than 700 medically vulnerable detainees and that it was not detaining any medically vulnerable detainees who could be safely released.” Three weeks later, Carlos Ernesto Escobar died at Otay Mesa Detention Center. As a man suffering from hypertension and diabetes, Escobar was medically vulnerable and while he experienced “horrifying neglect” at the facility ICE refused to release him. Instead, two days prior to Escobar’s death, an attorney for the agency told the immigration judge who had previously denied him release on bond that he “was in serious condition and suggested praying for him.”
The strong advocacy by organizations like FAIR and its allies in the administration are having tragic consequences. We cannot sit idly by as detention centers such as Otay Mesa continue to endanger the lives of detainees, staff and neighboring communities. San Diegans urge Otay Mesa Detention Center, ICE, and DHS to prioritize health and safety, not the anti-immigrant agenda of hate groups.
Jessica Cobian is the senior campaign manager for anti-hate and immigration at the Center for American Progress in Washington D.C. and the former lead organizer for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment in San Diego.