For weeks, detained people and immigrants’ rights advocates have warned of the deadly catastrophe that would unfold in detention centers nationwide if Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continued to detain people as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the United States. Detained families told the news media they feared for their lives. Detained people in Louisiana and Texas protested the lack of soap and other conditions that made them ripe for contracting COVID-19, only to be met with pepper spray from ICE. In New Jersey, detained people launched a hunger strike for soap. Containing the virus in detention centers is “physically impossible,” advocates warned, and continuing immigration enforcement “will put ever-more people’s lives in danger.”
Those fears have now been realized.
On Mar. 24, ICE confirmed a person detained in New Jersey had tested positive for COVID-19. Advocates say this is likely just the beginning as the virus is poised to spread through detention centers around the country. According to a detained person in Colorado who spoke to Prism, ICE has wholly failed to prepare or protect detained immigrants.
Sza Sza (not pictured) is not using her full name for safety reasons. She is a transgender asylum-seeker from Jamaica currently detained at the Aurora Detention Center in Colorado, where 10 people were placed in quarantine for possible exposure to the coronavirus and one employee has tested positive for the illness.
Sza Sza first came to the U.S. on a visa in 1997 to escape persecution because of her gender identity. She overstayed her visa and was funneled into the criminal justice system because of a marijuana charge. She was in legal limbo for years and detained while fighting her case, but she was eventually deported. Sza Sza attempted to return to the U.S. in 2018 to request asylum, but she was swiftly detained and has remained in federal immigration custody ever since. In total, she has spent seven years of her life here behind bars—incarcerated in the criminal justice system and detained in federal immigration custody. Since 2018, she has been detained in the “LGBTQ pod” at the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico, Texas’ El Paso Processing Center where she was detained with men, and now the Aurora Detention Center, where she was transferred a few months ago and is detained in isolation because of her gender identity.
Sza Sza told Prism that she is detained in an area of the Aurora Detention Center that has 24 beds, but she is the only person in her unit. She only interacts with medical staff and guards, but given that prison and detention center employees are testing positive for COVID-19, she has serious concerns about her safety and the safety of other detained people at the facility, who she alleges aren’t being given any information from ICE about the pandemic.
In a conversation with Prism Mar. 19—before the first detained person in the U.S. tested positive for COVID-19—Sza Sza told Prism what she was seeing at the Aurora Detention Center. Here she is, in her own words:
I’ve known about [the coronavirus] for a long period of time, but no information was volunteered to us about it in detention. I asked a guard what precautions they were going to take and he turned to me like he didn’t know what I was talking about. I asked the guard if we could have hand sanitizer and he said no because we would drink it. I told him we don’t even have appropriate soap; we are not given antibacterial soap. I don’t know what the soap they give us is made out of, but it’s not regular soap. If they say the soap they give us is helping, that’s an illusion. When I told the guard all of this—when I said the soap was worthless and pointless against the virus—he said that soap and water were the best disinfectants. I just want something antibacterial so we don’t get sick. Before I spoke up, they hadn’t given us any demonstration on how to even wash our hands properly.
When nothing happened [after I spoke to the] guard, I took my grievance to the captain. They told me [the week of Mar. 9] they don’t have any [coronavirus] cases here [at the Aurora Detention Center]. Later that day after I put in my grievance, I was coming back from pro-bono [legal services] and I saw a girl getting quarantined with my own eyes. I know she’s in quarantine because she was placed by herself and every time medical staff went into the cell they had masks and gloves on. Before she was quarantined, I know that girl was in another unit with many other people.
That same evening, all of a sudden the guards started wearing masks and gloves. I saw them wiping the door handles they touch and using Clorox for their own safety, but what are they doing for us? Nothing. The next day when I saw the guard again, the one who ignored [my concerns] and told me to use soap and water, he was wearing a mask. I said, ‘What are you wearing a mask for, you don’t have any soap and water? That’s what you told me yesterday.’ After that girl was quarantined they finally did a hand-washing demonstration, but they still haven’t given us proper soap.
They think I’m just difficult, but I know something is wrong. I don’t know why they’re not telling us information we need to know. I’m worried it’s too late. ICE capitalizes on what we don’t know. How do you protect yourself against something you don’t understand? They’re counting on us not knowing and submitting to them because we’re scared. But I’m outspoken and I have confrontations with ICE. I don’t think they’re taking proper precautions. It seems they’re not even concerned for themselves—why would they be concerned for us?
People who are detained are aware of the outbreak. It’s taking a psychological effect. They’re scared, but I don’t think they understand the full extent of it around the world and what is happening outside these walls and what will soon happen inside. It’s hard to understand the magnitude, especially because it’s not being addressed here. This virus is killing so many people. Of course I’m worried about how many people it will kill in here.
People from all over the world are in here. Even before they were detained, they were in crowded spaces or crowded camps; because of [Migrant Protection Protocols] they were around other people and now we are all stuck in here under unsafe conditions. It’s my biggest concern right now because ICE lacks care and concern. My lifeline in all of this has been the news channel. I understand the magnitude of what will happen here because I watch the news. That’s why I tell other people here what’s going on. I don’t want to just save myself. But I also can’t wait for ICE to do something. I’ve made it my responsibility to go to the commissary and try to get the proper soap I need. I have a responsibility to myself and to others to try to be healthy, but it’s cost-restrictive. I’m the one in prison, but they are basically telling me I have to figure out a way to buy soap for my own safety. They’re not taking responsibility for anything.
The likelihood there is an outbreak in here is so high—and ICE doesn’t care. All they care about is bringing more people into detention; all they care about is deporting people. They don’t see us as human; they label us as ‘aliens,’ and honestly I don’t even think it matters if we are so-called ‘illegal aliens’ or ‘legal aliens,’ they just want to get rid of us all. They call us ‘criminals’ because it makes us sound scary. When you call us criminals, it’s meant to demonize us. Am I a criminal for smoking a blunt or getting charged for marijuana? Is someone a criminal for getting a DUI? That’s what people have to think about. Why do they call us criminals, what is a criminal according to ICE, and why doesn’t the word ‘criminal’ apply to ICE? They break the law all the time. Immigration is a criminal enterprise.
You cannot even ask [ICE] for water if you’re thirsty—how are they going to save us from the virus? Their job is to keep us in here, even if it means thousands of people are infecting each other. Their job is not based on morality. The government knew there would be an outbreak; they knew this would be a pandemic, and they didn’t prepare anything the way they should have.
People in detention need to be protected. We are human just like everybody else. We live and die just like you, and we will die just like you. We all breathe the same air; it’s not like some people breathe Republican air and some people breathe Democrat air. We all breathe the air and we all deserve the same protection, whether we’re citizens or not. [The government] is barely concerned with Americans, so why would they be concerned about immigrants? But what befalls one, befalls us all. We are seeing that now. I don’t want to die from respiratory failure, just like you.
The health care in these institutions basically doesn’t exist. If there is an outbreak in the prison, they are not equipped to handle anything. They actually send us to outside facilities if we have a serious illness. The medical staff here are not trained for serious things. The entire prison industry is not equipped. Nothing good is going to come out of this situation.
If you look at what is happening in the outside world to American citizens, what do you think will happen in here? It’s going to be a nightmare. The health care is so negative and ICE will continue doing raids, they’re going to keep doing enforcement to make sure these beds are filled. To them, it’s not personal; they will just keep generating revenue. All of this generates money, so why would they abandon it? ICE is cold, just like the name says. I want people to know—the people ICE claims it’s protecting—that we are not a danger to the community. We are in danger in here. ICE wants us to get out of this country, but now coronavirus might get us out of here.
What do I want people to know? I want them to know ICE is not doing anything. That’s the bottom line. ICE is doing zero to protect us; they think of us as illegal aliens and dump us in cages. Our health and safety is not their concern, even when we’re in their care. Disease, virus, whatever harms us is not their concern.
I feel like it’s my duty and my responsibility to speak out and say what’s going on. Because I have morals. I’m on the side of humanity and justice. This doesn’t have to be dealt with the way they are dealing with it, but what if it’s too late?