In a press call Nov. 18, an eight-year-old boy using the pseudonym, “Antonio,” told reporters he wanted to leave the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, otherwise known as “Dilley.” He’d been detained at the facility for 456 days.
“I don’t want to be here. I feel like I can’t bear it anymore,” the boy said in a small voice. “The other kids and I have a right to be free.” The call was intended to alert the media that 28 asylum-seeking children who have been detained with their parents for more than a year at two family detention centers—Dilley and Leesport, Pennsylvania’s Berks County Residential Center—were facing deportation over Thanksgiving weekend. But while the threat of deportation still looms, another has emerged: Multiple detained families have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 26 of the children slated for deportation are now in quarantine.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, detained people, their attorneys, and advocates have warned it was only a matter of time before there were widespread COVID-19 outbreaks in detention centers. Their fears have since become a reality. There have been COVID-19 outbreaks in detention centers nationwide, and nine immigrants have died from the virus while in federal immigration custody. Eight individuals at Dilley, including parents and children, have now tested positive, including an eight-year-old child, according to Allison Herre, the managing attorney of Proyecto Dilley, a project that provides pro bono legal services to families detained at Dilley. The attorney explained that the setup of the family detention center makes it a prime location for the virus to spread because families are in close quarters. Dilley has different “neighborhoods,” Herre told Prism, and each neighborhood has four hallways that house 10 dorm areas where families reside in close quarters.
There are an estimated 70 families currently detained at Dilley, where children range in age from 1 to 17 years old. The eight-year-old boy who tested positive last week had been exhibiting symptoms “for days,” Herre said.
“His parent took him to the medical staff and the medical staff said it was ‘just a cold,’ and they gave the recommendation they always give no matter how serious the illness is: Drink more water,” said Herre. “It took a few days for him to get tested and in advance of being tested, he was engaging with other children, playing at the playground, and visiting with other families. This is why families in the facility are now in quarantine.”
Being in quarantine presents serious challenges to asylum-seeking families in detention. Not only does it further isolate them, the medical care provided in family detention centers is notoriously negligent and Herre said she is concerned families may develop severe symptoms, potentially leaving seriously ill parents completely isolated in dorms while caring for their child.
The quarantine is also making it difficult for legal service providers to communicate with their clients. During the pandemic, attorneys have provided legal services remotely, but now that families can only leave their dorms to use the restroom, Herre and others are having trouble reaching their clients. According to the attorney, cell phones must be walked to parents in quarantine by guards employed by CoreCivic, the private prison company Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracts with to run the facility. When Herre spoke to Prism Monday evening, she said attorneys were still trying to reach parents by phone and that each appointment had been delayed by at least two and a half hours. On Tuesday, some families were facing their credible fear interviews that demonstrate their eligibility for asylum and without legal guidance, their chances of being able to remain in the United States would be severely impacted—and the Trump administration has already gone to great lengths to block asylum during the pandemic.
Broadly speaking, the Trump administration has implemented “huge, impenetrable barriers” for immigrant families who are being denied their “lawful right to seek asylum” with policies that federal courts have since blocked, said Bridget Cambria, co-founder and executive director of Aldea–The People’s Justice Center, an organization that provides pro bono legal services to families detained inside of Berks. During the Nov. 18 media call, Cambria cited the asylum transit ban as an example. The ban required immigrants to first seek protection in another country they traveled through before asking for refuge in the United States. In other words, the transit ban barred immigrants from seeking asylum in the U.S. if they traveled through other countries before arriving here, unless they met certain restrictive exceptions. In June, a U.S. district judge struck down the transit ban and the rule was vacated and is no longer in effect. In July, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals also blocked the rule, though by that time it had already been applied to thousands of asylum seekers, BuzzFeed’s Adolfo Flores reported—including the 28 children now facing deportation after long periods of detention.
Even before families began testing positive for COVID-19 at Dilley where eight-year-old Antonio is detained, it was clear his lengthy detention was wearing on him. The long-term effects of detention on children are well-documented and include post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and other mental health issues. As he was leaving the Nov. 18 media call, Antonio asked if he could “say something else” to the reporters on the call.
“Please help us get out of here. All of us detained here can’t stand it anymore,” Antonio said. “I’m asking for a favor, please help us leave from here. The truth is, I don’t want to spend another Christmas in this detention center. I want to spend it with my family and my dad outside of this detention center.”