The newcomers were in the general population for only two days before they were transferred. One had a high fever and all four had been coughing. The guards said nothing as they moved them out, but the detainees’ dry hack told Danilo de León more than he wanted to know.
The 27-year-old from Guatemala had been dreading this moment for weeks. In early March, he had boarded a crowded plane from California to Texas, moved on to a packed bus, and joined more than two dozen other men in a cramped room inside U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Joe Corley Detention Facility in Conroe.
No one was wearing a mask and social distancing was impossible.
His dorm-style room had 16 bunk beds in tight rows, three toilets and showers shared by up to 32 men. There was no space for privacy and nowhere to hide from your cellmates, let alone from a virus.
Soon after the four coughing men left, de León’s unit was quarantined. The detainees could no longer go in the common area to exercise. The library was off limits, their food arrived on disposable plates and a nurse took their temperature twice a day.
It was only a matter of time, de León thought.
The nation’s first case of an immigration detainee with COVID-19 was reported on March 24, a 31-year-old Mexican national in ICE custody at the county jail in Hackensack, N.J.
Three months later, nearly 2,500 detainees have tested positive nationwide, with Texas accounting for 40 percent of all cases. Testing capacity varies by detention center, so the number is probably higher. What’s clear is that immigrants continue to be callously endangered when there are safer and even cheaper alternatives to detention.
Activists and lawmakers have called on the Trump administration to release immigration detainees, especially those with higher health risk due to age or chronic illness, but the federal government has mostly failed to act.