Protesters drive in a caravan around Immigration and Customs Enforcement El Paso Processing Center to demand the release of ICE detainees due to safety concerns amidst the COVID-19 outbreak on April 16, 2020, in El Paso, Texas. (Photo by Paul Ratje / Agence France-Presse / AFP) (Photo by PAUL RATJE/Agence France-Presse/AFP via Getty Images)

In the early morning on Feb. 4, Jose boarded a packed airplane in Illinois filled with handcuffed immigrant detainees just like him. They were en route to another detention center in Oklahoma after theirs was ordered close. During the hour-and-35-minute flight, several people appeared ill, coughing and sniffling, but no one was able to socially distance. A few days later, Jose began experiencing the worst kind of sickness he had ever felt. He had contracted COVID-19. Jose joins the 1,126 other immigrants in ICE detention who are currently being monitored and tested positive for the virus, representing a 395% surge in COVID-19 cases since January when there were only 285 reported cases.  

“I was scared at one point. I’ve never been sick like that in my life,” Jose said. “I thought, ‘I’m going to die here.’” 

Jose, who has asked to withhold his last name to protect his identity, is 25 years old and has lived in the U.S. since he came with his parents from Mexico at age 7, but he has been in immigration detention for three months. He was originally detained in Illinois at McHenry County Jail, but when Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the Illinois Way Forward Act, banning private and county-run immigration detention, Jose was one of 17 people from McHenry County Jail transferred to the Kay County Jail in Oklahoma. 

“We really want to focus on getting releases and getting folks out of detention, instead of transfers to another facility,” said Gabriela Viera, advocacy manager at the Detention Watch Network. “We need to continue shutting down facilities until we are in a place where there are no more facilities for people to be transferred to.”

Another person in a different immigrant detention center, Jorge, was transferred from a facility in New York to Krome Detention Center in Homestead, Florida. According to advocates from the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, he was exposed to COVID-19 and tested positive for the virus. Jorge has confirmed widespread reports that there is a complete disregard for the virus within the detention center, with no access to hand sanitizer or vaccines. 

According to the National Immigrant Justice Center, both McHenry County Jail and the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee County experienced COVID-19 outbreaks among the ICE population at the time of these transfers. Advocates, public health experts, and members of Congress raised the alarm to Chicago Field Office Director Sylvie Renda in the days before the transfers about the risks of moving people to jails out of state under these circumstances, but ultimately, about 30 people were transferred from McHenry and Kankakee to Oklahoma, as well as Indiana and Texas.

“There was no distance between us,” Jose said. “When we got there, they just put us all in the dorm room.”

About four days after arriving in Oklahoma, Jose began feeling sick. His body ached, his sinuses were congested, and he had difficulty standing, especially during routine phone calls where there are no chairs provided. The extreme cold at night only worsened his symptoms, and he developed body shivers, chest pain, and a fever. He put in two requests to see the medic before he was finally tested for COVID-19 and confirmed that he had the virus. 

“They’re not testing people regularly, and they’re not socially distancing, they’re not providing people with sufficient hygiene products,” said Diana Rashid, National Immigrant Justice Center’s managing attorney who is representing Jose in his release request. “The spread is just going to continue.”

The medic gave him fever-reducing medication and vitamin D. He was returned to his 20-person pod and was told to remain in his bunk and try to self-isolate within his dorm room the size of a small basketball court.

“I thought they were going to move me to a cell alone,” Jose said. “But, they just left me in the room. I think I even got someone else sick.”

Jose is now recovering and feels better, but at least one other person has tested positive, with a total of nine positive cases in the detention center, according to ICE. But, Jose says that number may be even larger due to underreporting. When a person tests positive, they are put under quarantine for 10 days, meaning they cannot interact with other pods. Even worse, they are not taken out of their rooms for their court hearings, postponing an already delayed process and forcing them to stay in detention longer than necessary. According to Rashid, it would take about two-to-four weeks to get a first hearing in Chicago immigration court after a person is first detained.

“Everyone’s cases stalled for those who are in quarantine,” said Rashid.

Jose, who has been in quarantine for a majority of his duration in detention, says that people are getting frustrated and desperate with the continued prolonging of their cases. Some are even considering signing the removal papers out of desperation. 

“I just want to go ahead with my court proceedings and get out of here,” said Jose. “I want to make it to the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Immigration advocates hope more states will follow in the path of Illinois and close their detention centers. A total of 41 people were released from these jails during January in Illinois, but they believe that everyone, including Jose, should have been released on the current ICE enforcement memo guidelines. Advocates are also continuing to push for Congress to cut funding for immigration detention and enforcement and hope to invest in vital programs that uplift their communities instead, like health care, affordable housing, and education.

Alexandra Martinez

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...