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.


Immigration Courts Are Telling Employees to Come to Work — Ignoring Health Risks and Local Shelter-in-Place Orders

20 Mar

by Dara Lind

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

On Tuesday night — over a day after several Bay Area counties issued shelter-in-place orders barring most people from leaving their homes — the San Francisco immigration court sent an email to staff: Hearings were being postponed nationwide for most immigrants, so the court would be closed starting Wednesday. (The text of the email was provided to ProPublica.)

On Wednesday, however, employees were directed to get onto a conference call, according to two participants. There they were told the Tuesday night email was wrong. The court wasn’t closed. They would have to come into the office — or use their vacation time to stay home. When staff asked about the shelter-in-place orders, the response was that the Department of Justice, which runs immigration courts, took the position that those were local laws and didn’t apply to federal employees.

The Trump administration has reduced immigration court operations in the past week, by postponing hearings for non-detained immigrants and closing a handful of courts to the public. Those actions came after the unions representing immigration prosecutors and judges issued a rare public call for courts to close.

The reduced court operations came after weeks of employees raising concerns privately and, they say, receiving few and unhelpful answers. And because the closures are determined solely by whether a court is hearing cases of detained immigrants, rather than by the level of health peril, employees still feel they’re putting their health at risk every time they come into the office as instructed.

That’s the picture that emerges from interviews with 10 federal employees who work at immigration courts across the country. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity. Many said they had raised concerns internally about their exposure to COVID-19 to their managers or hadn’t been informed of potential exposures.

“When I signed up for this job, I thought it might be morally compromising at times,” one immigration court employee told ProPublica, “but I never thought it would be compromising of my health and safety.”

The Executive Office for Immigration Review, the DOJ agency that oversees immigration courts, told ProPublica that agency headquarters was responsible for deciding when courts closed, but it did not confirm or deny specifics of the employees’ allegations, saying, “We do not comment on internal communications or internal personnel operations.”

In Denver, one prosecutor interviewed by ProPublica was alarmed by a judge’s frequent coughs during a hearing last Friday. “Don’t mind my coughing,” the judge said, according to the prosecutor. “I don’t think it’s coronavirus.” The following Tuesday, the prosecutor noticed that the judge was out for the rest of the week and emailed a court staffer in concern: Was it the coronavirus? Should she be taking precautions? The staffer’s reply: For privacy reasons, the prosecutor’s questions couldn’t be answered.

Only after news broke to the public on Tuesday night that a judge at the Denver immigration court had been diagnosed with COVID-19 (the disease caused by the new coronavirus) did court officials follow up with the prosecutor and confirm her suspicions. Other attorneys the judge had been in close contact with were notified the next day. The court remained open through Thursday, when the entire building it was housed in was shut down for deep cleaning by the General Services Administration. (It’s currently set to reopen Monday.)

In New York, legal aid groups sent a letter to immigration court officials saying that two of their attorneys had symptoms of COVID-19 and a third had been exposed to someone who’d tested positive. All three attorneys had appeared in court the past week, and all had hearings scheduled the following day. The courts didn’t say anything to their employees about the letter, according to multiple sources.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has pressured the immigration courts to process as many immigrants as quickly as possible — pressuring judges to hear more cases and complete them within a year, and making it harder for immigrants or attorneys to postpone hearings. Now, they face a public health crisis that requires everyone to reduce person-to-person contact.

Immigration court workers have two concerns. The first is that the courts are often crowded and require close contact with members of the public. The second is that, like most employees of any type, especially those who take public transit, they are exposed every time they leave their homes to work.

Employees remain concerned about their exposure over the past few weeks, while courts were running as usual. Employees in New York and California — the states hardest hit by the pandemic to date — told ProPublica that their requests for “deep cleaning” were rejected by managers, and that they were bringing their own Clorox wipes and disinfectant spray to the office.

Most immigration court business happens in person. Even trying to postpone an immigration hearing (for example, due to illness) requires an attorney to file a paper form with a clerk. And if an immigrant doesn’t show up for a hearing, they’re at risk of getting ordered deported in absentia. In at least one New York court, according to two people who work there, the chief judge told employees Monday to issue absentia deportation orders if immigrants weren’t showing up, even if the coronavirus was the suspected cause.

Policies the Trump administration introduced before the COVID-19 pandemic put considerable pressure on judges and prosecutors not to allow immigrants to postpone their hearings. Judges face a “performance standard” of completing 80% of their cases within a year — a standard over 90% of judges don’t meet, according to the National Association of Immigration Judges. But the more than 150 judges who have been hired in the past two years are still in their probationary period, where they could be fired for failing to meet performance standards.

While many judges have been lenient in granting coronavirus-related postponements, others have not. Last week, according to one California immigration court employee, a judge took a break from a hearing to tell colleagues that the immigrant’s attorney claimed to be sick, but because he wasn’t coughing, the hearing would move forward.

One email sent by the chief prosecutor at the Miami court Tuesday, read to ProPublica, told prosecutors that if an immigrant or her attorney claimed to be sick, any postponement should be counted against the immigrant (preventing them from requesting another postponement). If the immigrant didn’t want to postpone, and the judge wasn’t willing to hold the hearing by phone, the prosecutor was instructed to contact her manager — who would assess the claim of illness himself before deciding what to do. (A call to the chief prosecutor in Miami was not immediately returned.)

Most communication, though, has been oral. In at least two courts, chief judges were asked to put policies in writing and declined.

Employees have been in the dark about who, exactly, is making the decisions about which courts are open and when employees are allowed to work from home or take leave to stay home. “The word is that it’s out of their hands. Everything is out of everybody’s hands,” Fanny Behar-Ostrow, president of the union representing immigration prosecutors, told ProPublica Wednesday. “I don’t know who’s making the calls, but they’re wrong.”

An email obtained by the Miami Herald, written by the assistant chief immigration judge in charge of the Miami immigration court on Wednesday, said that closure decisions were ultimately being made by “the White House” — something that employees at other courts also said their managers had suggested. But chief judges gave conflicting explanations about which decisions were subject to White House approval; one chief judge told employees that the White House had to be involved in decisions about remote work, while other chief judges made those decisions themselves.

It’s not clear who at the White House is involved or how. Immigration officials told the Herald that the ultimate decision was made by the Office of Management and Budget. However, according to the employees ProPublica spoke to, some immigration court officials used “White House” to refer to policies set by the Office of Personnel Management. The assistant chief immigration judge (the judge in charge of a given immigration court location) for one California court told employees on March 12 that she’d had a phone call with staff for Vice President Mike Pence, who’s running the official coronavirus task force.

But to many employees, the specter of “White House” involvement raised concerns that the administration’s immigration policy priorities were getting in the way of its public health obligations.

The Department of Justice and White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Judge Amiena Khan, speaking as the executive vice president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, told ProPublica on Wednesday that she was “pleased to see that the agency is taking the correct steps in the right direction.” But other employees, like the ones in San Francisco, retain acute concerns that simply showing up continues to put them at risk.

Employees have been told that courts are closing in full only if they exclusively hear “non-detained” cases — meaning all their hearings have been postponed for the next few weeks. At courts that hear cases of both detained and non-detained immigrants, all employees are expected to continue to work, even in the areas hardest hit by the pandemic.

Two employees noted to ProPublica that they had been deemed “nonessential” employees during the 2019 government shutdown, when their pay was at stake, but were now being treated as if they were essential and told to put their health at risk. “The government needs to decide,” one said. “Are we essential, or are we not?”

Some employees have been told they can take “annual leave” (vacation time) if they wish to stay home. But most junior attorneys at the DOJ, and many immigration prosecutors, don’t have much accumulated vacation time.

Many immigration judges have been staying home, either because of fear of contagion or child care needs. When a judge is absent, their docket is assigned to another judge. This week, that docket shuffling has gotten in the way of the DOJ’s efforts to wind down operations for “non-detained” cases. At one court that hears both types of cases, according to two employees who work there, none of the judges scheduled to hear detainees’ cases showed up on Wednesday — leading the rest of the judges, who were supposed to be shutting down their operations, to have to hear cases instead.

In theory, employees should be able to work remotely. But the crisis has exposed a nationwide laptop shortage at the Executive Office for Immigration Review. At some courts that have fully closed, employees have been told to wait at home and laptops will be mailed to them.

Where there aren’t enough laptops to go around, who gets to work from home is determined by seniority, not by health needs, according to several employees. Some courts have redistributed laptops from junior employees to senior ones.

At the Los Angeles court, some employees were given permission to work from home Monday and Tuesday. The court officially closed to the public Tuesday night. On Wednesday, according to one worker, employees were suddenly instructed to come into the office — where they were told to continue working, at their desks, until someone came by to take their laptops away so they could be given to immigration judges.