In the days since the president declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency, the coronavirus has effectively turned Texas on its head. Schools have closed, bars and restaurants have been limited to takeout service, and gatherings of more than ten people are prohibited. But inside the walls of the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, it’s as if the virus doesn’t exist.
At the privately run Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing center, female detainees have learned of the coronavirus by watching the news. They live in close quarters, sleeping in bunk beds that line the barracks. So far, the only change within the facility is a new wall sign suggesting that the women cough into their elbows and wash their hands for twenty seconds. Throughout the facility, the detainees are anxious, said Cristian Sanchez, a RAICES attorney who works with clients at Pearsall. “It’s as if the coronavirus hasn’t happened in the outside world,” he said. “There’s been absolutely no change in procedure, and no one has talked to my clients about preventative measures. There’s no gloves, no hand sanitizer, no masks, no anything.”
Kat Russell, another attorney at RAICES working with detainees at the Pearsall detention center, said her clients reported that they ran out of soap in the female dorms on Sunday and were told to use shampoo to wash their hands.
Several of Sanchez’s clients are sick, reporting coughing, fever, aches, and chills, but so far none of them have been separated from the other detainees or had their temperatures taken. When he goes to visit them, Sanchez brings his own supply of pens, sanitizer, and antibacterial wipes to disinfect the contact visitation rooms where they meet.
ICE suspended family visits March 13 due to coronavirus concerns, and lawyers say legal visitors have been asked to fill out a questionnaire as well as have their temperature taken before visiting facilities. On March 18, ICE announced that it would be delaying the bulk of its deportation efforts amid the national emergency to focus on people who are deemed a threat to public safety, and that the agency would be taking steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in their facilities. “Detainees who meet CDC criteria for epidemiologic risk of exposure to COVID-19 are housed separately from the general population. ICE places detainees with fever and/or respiratory symptoms in a single medical housing room, or in a medical airborne infection isolation room specifically designed to contain biological agents, such as COVID-19,” the agency’s statement reads. The agency also plans to transport those with moderate to severe symptoms to “appropriate hospitals with expertise in high risk care.”