ICE Detainee Says Migrants Are Going on a Hunger Strike for Soap

23 Mar

by Dara Lind

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In an audio recording obtained by ProPublica, an immigrant held in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention in New Jersey complains that he and other detainees are on a hunger strike to try to obtain soap and toilet paper in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — and that guards reportedly have told detainees, “Well, you’re going to have to die of something.”

The audio was recorded when Ronal Umaña, a 30-year-old immigrant from El Salvador currently being held at the Hudson County Correctional Facility in New Jersey, placed a personal call to an advocate on Sunday. The advocate provided the audio to ProPublica.

Shortly after Umaña’s call, the detention center was placed on 14-day lockdown, further restricting public access. Vice News reported Sunday that two people held in the facility had tested positive for COVID-19; ICE confirmed to ProPublica that those people were not ICE detainees. (The detention center houses people arrested by local officials separately from those being held by ICE.)

“We started a hunger strike for them to give us toilet paper and soap — which is the most important — and hygiene supplies, like to clean our hands,” Umaña said in the recording. As of Sunday, Umaña said, he and other detainees had been on a hunger strike for four days.

Hudson County’s ICE detention facility is one of at least three in New Jersey where detainees are on a hunger strike over what they see as officials’ failure to protect them from infection. The state has been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus, and it was placed under a statewide stay-in-place order on Saturday.

In the recording, Umaña explained that the facility has provided hand sanitizer for guards but not for detainees. Umaña said detainees receive a single bar of soap for a week, both for showering and washing hands; if they want more, they must buy it from the prison commissary for $1.70.

According to Umaña, guards have responded to detainees’ demands with dismissal and rage. “They don’t do anything,” he said in Spanish on the recording. “They only yell at us and tell us that if we complain — that ‘unless we see you get really sick, or you really have a high fever, we can’t do anything with you.’ So we say, ‘If we have a bad fever, and lots of us are sick, we can die here,’ and they say, ‘Well, you’re going to have to die of something.’”

Hudson County, whose government runs the detention facility, did not reply to requests for comment. ICE said it has sent guidance to detention operators regarding protections against COVID-19, and referred ProPublica to its website, which specifically mentions protocols for the use of personal protective equipment and rules for separating detainees who have tested positive. The agency said it had not heard of any allegations about insufficient cleaning supplies at any facility.

Advocates and medical experts around the U.S. are worried about the potential for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, to spread in prisons and jails. That concern is particularly acute in ICE detention centers, which have a long track record of struggling to contain infectious disease.

A letter sent to Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence last week, written by doctor-advocates from the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest Medical Providers Network and Doctors for Camp Closure and signed by over 3,000 medical professionals, called on ICE to release immigrants from detention “to avoid preventable deaths” from COVID-19. They expressed concern for immigrants with underlying health conditions, a group that includes Umaña, who has epilepsy.

Advocates have filed several lawsuits against ICE to force the release of certain medically vulnerable immigrants, but no judge has yet ordered ICE to comply with advocates’ demands.

Many immigrants detained by ICE, including Umaña, could be released on parole while their deportation cases are resolved. However, under President Donald Trump, ICE has sharply curtailed the use of parole to release immigrants from custody.

Umaña has been detained by ICE since 2016. He is currently awaiting a new hearing before an immigration judge, after winning an appeal last fall that ordered the judge to reexamine his case.

Umaña’s attorney filed a federal court petition seeking his release in January. That case is still pending. He was scheduled for a hearing on March 31, but the courtroom his case was assigned to has been closed because of COVID-19 concerns (although the case could be reassigned to a judge at a courtroom that is still open).

On March 12, as New Jersey reported its first COVID-19 death, Umaña’s attorney filed a request for his release on medical grounds due to the threat of coronavirus infection. ICE declined to reconsider his detention.

As of Thursday, 270 ICE detainees were held in the Hudson County facility. Last week, two of them were quarantined and tested for COVID-19 because their attorneys had been exposed to the virus and were experiencing symptoms. A county spokesperson said last week that both ICE detainees tested negative; one was released, while the other was removed from quarantine and returned to normal detention.

According to Umaña, several more detainees have reported fevers and requested medical attention but haven’t received it.

Starting Monday, ICE is prohibiting immigrants’ attorneys from entering detention facilities without personal protective equipment, including N95 or surgical masks (of which there are shortages in many parts of the country). But detention center guards and other employees are also a risk to carry COVID-19 into detention facilities.

At the Bergen County detention center in New Jersey, eight employees are currently self-quarantined after one tested positive for COVID-19 last week, although a spokesperson for the county sheriff’s office told the press that none of the self-quarantined individuals had contact with detainees. In a detention center in Aurora, Colorado, 10 detainees were quarantined last week, though none showed symptoms, according to a spokesperson for private prison company GEO, which runs the Aurora facility.

ICE told Congress last week that until the crisis subsides, it would “focus enforcement” on immigrants who focused “public-safety risks” or who had criminal records that required them to be detained under immigration law. Other immigrants, ICE said in its statement, could be placed in “alternatives to detention.” But ICE confirmed to ProPublica that it has not made any policy changes regarding immigrants who had already been detained.

On the day ICE notified Congress of its change in policy, Umaña’s attorneys received word that ICE was declining to reconsider releasing him from detention because of the COVID-19 threat.

Do you have access to information about detainees that should be public? Email dara.lind@propublica.org. Here’s how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.


The Coronavirus Testing Paradox

23 Mar

by Stephen Engelberg

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There’s a seeming paradox in experts’ advice on testing people for COVID-19. A growing number of epidemiologists are calling for a nationwide regimen of tests to identify hot spots and allow public health workers to isolate the close contacts of anyone who’s infected.

Yet New York City, the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., has ordered doctors not to test anyone who is “mild to moderately ill” with COVID-like symptoms, a position also taken by Los Angeles. As New York’s Health Department succinctly put it: “Outpatient testing must not be encouraged, promoted or advertised.”

Dr. Tom Frieden, former health commissioner of New York City and former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said both viewpoints make sense.

“Where you stand depends on where you sit,” Frieden said. “Local context is all important. In New York City, today, you should not get tested if you have mild symptoms.”

The reason, he said, is that the health care systems in places like New York, Los Angeles and Seattle are about to be overwhelmed by a wave of people seriously ill from COVID-19. They know it’s coming. Administering each test takes up protective gear, swabs and health care workers’ time, all of which should be reserved for patients with life-threatening conditions. On Monday, for instance, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital reported that it had more than 600 patients with COVID-19.

Conversely, Frieden and other experts pointed out, the United States will need to pursue a policy of very broad testing if it hopes to slow the spread of the disease and restart parts of the economy anytime soon. Frieden noted that one of the countries most effective in lowering its infection rate, Singapore, had great success in tracing and isolating the contacts of each infected person. That is no longer possible in New York state, which has reported more than 20,000 positive tests and has many times that number of people infected. But he said it remains doable in many other cities and towns.

“In places where you’ve got the cases way down, or there are no cases,” he said, “aggressive testing will be needed.”

The lack of testing continues to be a source of deep frustration across the country, with worried patients unable to find out whether they have the ordinary flu, the coronavirus or something else entirely. The availability of testing in regions that aren’t hot spots still faces an array of bottlenecks, from shortages of cotton swabs to the capacity of the labs processing the tests.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration under President Donald Trump, argued in a widely read Twitter commentary for a multipronged approach to fighting the virus, which will involve overcoming all of these hurdles and significantly stepping up testing nationwide. The current “shelter in place” orders, which have tens of millions of people in New York, California and other states limited to their homes and not going to work, he said, will ultimately have to be supplanted by a more targeted approach.

To do this, he wrote, the United States “must widely test our population” and “diagnose mild and even asymptomatic cases” with reliable tests that can be administered in doctors’ offices. “We must have tools to identify and isolate small outbreaks so we can lean less heavily” on locking down whole swaths of society, Gottlieb wrote.

Trevor Bedford, a University of Washington virologist who has been directly involved in detecting and fighting his state’s outbreak, offered a similar prescription in a recent series of tweets. Bedford’s observations were prompted, in part, by a recent study by epidemiologists at Imperial College London that said countries had little alternative to maintaining strict restrictions on social contact until a vaccine is available, a process that could take 18 months. The study forecast as many as 1.1 million to 1.2 million deaths in the United States if officials backed off the sorts of measures taken by New York and California in recent days.

Bedford said he was not that “pessimistic,” and he called for a strategy that “revolves around a massive rollout of testing capacity.” Recent studies, he wrote, support the argument that a “significant” portion of the transmission of the virus arises from people who spread it before they feel sick. There also are people who infect others while never experiencing any symptoms of their own.

Something approaching universal testing would make it possible to significantly reduce such “transmission routes.”

“If someone can be tested early in their illness before they show symptoms,” Bedford wrote, “they could effectively self isolate and reduce onward transmission compared to isolation when symptoms develop.”

He envisaged a future in which swabs are delivered to people’s homes for quick return and in which drive-through testing is widely available to anyone with a car. “There are logistics involved in getting a result quickly,” he wrote, “but it’s really just logistics, which can be solved.”

Bedford suggested an approach that appears to have worked in South Korea, which combined test results with “cell phone location data” on known positive cases, allowing notification of people who have been in proximity to confirmed cases to “self isolate and get tested.”

A third pillar of Bedford’s approach is a medical exam that does not yet exist — a blood test that can detect the presence of antibodies to COVID-19. Antibodies are created when the immune system successfully fights off an infection and people with them are “highly likely to possess immunity” and can “fully return to the workforce and keep society functioning.”

That assumption, like many about the virus, remains the subject of research. For his part, Frieden said he was cautious about taking any action based on a test that detects antibodies. Does it mean the person is immune from a second infection? “We can’t count on that,” he said. “We don’t yet know that.”

The clash between the short-term and long-term views of testing were on vivid display in the press conference last week that made headlines for Trump’s angry outburst at an NBC reporter.

Earlier in the briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, sought to distinguish between the ultimate need for more tests with the immediate requirement that Americans stop gathering in workplaces, bars, streets and restaurants.

The extreme steps taken by California and New York, Fauci said, are “how you put an end to this outbreak.”

“Testing is important,” he said. “But let’s not conflate testing with the action that we have to take. Whether or not you test, do this. I’m not putting down testing as an important issue, but people seem to link them so much that if you don’t have universal testing, you can’t respond to the outbreak. You really can.”

Trump disparaged the notion of widespread testing as imagined by Bedford and others. “We don’t want every American to go out and get a test. Three hundred and fifty million people,” Trump said. “We don’t want that. We want people that have a problem, that have a problem with they’re sneezing, they’re sniffling, they don’t feel good, they have a temperature.”


An Opportunity Presents Itself

23 Mar

Reading Time: 3 minutes Seven states — Louisiana, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Maryland, Connecticut, and Indiana — have postponed their presidential primaries. Wyoming canceled its in-person caucuses and urged everyone to vote by mail. In fact, a growing number of people are pointing out that mail-in voting could be the best way to keep voters safe without disrupting turnout this Read More

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