Jose Hernandez Perez, a 36-year-old from Honduras, had been living at Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in central Louisiana for about three months when people in his dorm of about 40 started getting sick in mid-July.
Perez developed chest pain and headaches. He was examined by a doctor who said he had high blood pressure.
“There were a lot of people coughing,” he remembered. “They had pain, they were lying on the bed.”
Some who complained of feeling sick and who worked in the detention center’s kitchen didn’t want to be tested for COVID-19, Perez said, for fear they’d be taken out of a role that paid a little money for spending in the facility’s commissary.
In a rare move for a facility under the purview of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, staff ended up testing not just those with symptoms, or even everyone in Perez’s dorm, but the entire facility of over 300 people, according to ICE officials. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, ICE has typically only required the testing of those with symptoms, despite the growing awareness that asymptomatic carriers can account for 40 percent of those with the disease.
Between July 19 and July 20, the number of recorded ongoing cases of COVID-19 at Pine Prairie jumped from just two to 32. Perez was among the positive.
Homero Lopez said he started getting calls on a Sunday night after staff told detainees that they’d contracted COVID-19, five days from when detainees said they were tested and then locked down in their dorm. Lopez is an immigration lawyer with clients at Pine Prairie who’s also helping Perez find representation in applying for parole.
He believes the true incidence of the disease at the facility could be much higher. As they waited days for test results, Perez and others were kept in their dorms — meaning those that were sick could potentially still spread the virus to whoever hadn’t yet been infected, Lopez said.
The outbreak is far from the first at ICE facilities; others have hit Texas, Arizona and Virginia. COVID-19 has spread quickly in the tightly packed quarters of detention centers where advocates and detainees say social distancing is impossible and safety supplies are scarce. More than 4,000 detainees across the U.S. have tested positive. ICE has recorded three detainee deaths.
There have been lawsuits calling for the most at risk to be released, including 16 immigrants held in Louisiana facilities — a move that some public health experts said could prevent major outbreaks. Officials say ICE’s number of detainees has dwindled by 40 percent since March to roughly 21,500. That was aided by the deportation of thousands of immigrants, including those with COVID-19, according to an investigation by The New York Times and The Marshall Project.
Yet despite the dramatic decline in detainees, COVID-19 is still spreading in detention centers. And as the pandemic enters its sixth month, the allegations of Pine Prairie’s outbreak this summer show an agency still floundering to enforce even the most basic safety precautions.