Protestors drive by and honk their horns outside of the Eloy Detention Center, a private immigration detention facility in Eloy, Arizona on Friday, April 10, 2020. (Photo by Nicole Neri | AZCIR)

Tensions skyrocket as COVID-19 fears grip Arizona detention center

Advocacy groups, attorneys and medical experts are putting pressure on federal immigration officials to release detainees because of fears of COVID-19. On Friday, hundreds of protesters drove around the La Palma Correctional Center and the nearby Eloy Detention Center demanding ICE release the men and women held inside. La Palma is the latest facility to have a string of complaints raised by detainees as COVID-19 fills hospitals and strains the nation’s health care system. Experts are concerned the nation’s immigration detention centers are a hotspot for the virus to spread quickly.
*Updated 9:30 a.m. | April 13, 2020

By Valeria Fernández and Jude Joffe-Block | April 12, 2020

PHOENIX – Rodrigo Martínez was certain he had a fever. Gasping for air, he said, felt like breathing pepper. It burned.

It had been several days, and still, no one at the La Palma Correctional Center had taken his temperature, Martínez told AZCIR in a phone interview on Saturday. The 32-year-old Mexican national hadn’t been tested for COVID-19, though at least two other detainees have become infected at the private immigration detention center in Eloy, Arizona where he’s been held for nearly two months.

When Martínez asked to see a medic Friday night, he said a guard told him he must submit a formal request, and warned it might take time. He needed to say “something specific,” Martínez said the guard explained before he could take him to the doctor.

“Do I have to tell you that I’m dying so you will take me?,” Martínez asked.

It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that he was taken to medical personnel, Martínez told AZCIR on Sunday. He said a nurse told him he was being seen because his attorney had called ICE. The nurse said he did not have a fever and Martínez returned to his pod without receiving painkillers.

When he got to his pod, it was in lockdown. Martínez’s cellmate, Samuel León, told AZCIR that facility personnel had used pepper spray Saturday evening to end a protest over the treatment of sick detainees – an allegation ICE confirmed Monday. León said the spray entered inside their cells, causing everyone to cough – especially those who were already sick.

León, a 26-year-old Mexican national, said for the past three days, he has had a cough, fatigue and what felt like a fever. Both men said facility staff checked everyone’s temperature in their pod for the first time on Sunday morning.

In a statement issued Sunday afternoon, CoreCivic spokesperson Amanda Gilchrist wrote that staff responded to a protest of detainees “who became disruptive and confrontational, refusing to comply with verbal directives provided by facility staff.” The statement went on to say that facility staff “successfully restored order, with no injuries occurring as a result of this incident to detainees or staff.”

ICE spokesperson Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe confirmed the Saturday protest and response at La Palma in a written statement Monday. La Palma facility staff deployed “oleoresin capsicum, commonly referred to as ‘OC’ spray” after a group of detainees refused to comply with staff orders, the statement said, adding “This calculated use of force was conducted consistent with agency protocol.”

Martínez and León’s accounts are the latest in a string of complaints raised by detainees held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in Arizona and across the country. As COVID-19 fills hospitals and strains the nation’s health care system, experts are concerned the nation’s immigration detention centers are a hotspot for the virus to spread quickly. Detainees held in close quarters are unable to practice social distancing.

Advocacy groups, attorneys and medical experts are putting pressure on federal immigration officials to release detainees. On Friday, protesters drove around La Palma and the nearby Eloy Detention Center demanding ICE release the men and women held inside.

As of April 4, ICE had 2,970 immigrants detained at its Arizona facilities, according to the agency. La Palma can hold more than 3,000 individuals, according to records, but ICE and CoreCivic – the private company operating the facility – did not provide current figures.

AZCIR interviewed a dozen men who are detained in La Palma, all of whom expressed serious concerns about how the facility is managing the COVID-19 crisis. They describe communal spaces that are not properly sanitized, scarcity of soap, lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and a failure by facility staff to adequately inform detainees about the virus – charges denied by CoreCivic.

The La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona is shown here on April 10, 2020. The facility houses U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees and is managed by CoreCivic. (Photo by Nicole Neri | AZCIR)

“Claims that staff are ignoring the medical needs of detainees is patently false,” CoreCivic spokesperson Gilchrist wrote in an emailed statement. “Sick calls are processed without delay and anyone who is not well/exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 is immediately referred to medical.” An ICE spokesperson said she was unable to respond before AZCIR’s deadline.

Arizona’s immigration detention centers are mostly clustered in rural Pinal County, which also houses several prisons. The potential for COVID-19 to spread in these facilities poses a threat to the county’s hospitals, which were treating 32 patients infected with the virus as of Friday. As of April 12, the Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry confirmed 8 cases of COVID-19 statewide, out of 75 inmates tested. Five of the confirmed cases were in Pinal County.

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“An outbreak of COVID-19 in a rural detention center could be disastrous,” Dr. Ashish K. Jha, a professor of health policy at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, wrote in a federal court document filed April 8, recommending that officials pause immigration court proceedings and release as many detainees as possible.

ICE confirmed the first detainee in its custody, an immigrant in New Jersey, had tested positive for COVID-19 on March 24. By the evening of April 10, the number had jumped to 61, including five cases in two Arizona facilities. The first case of COVID-19 at La Palma was disclosed on April 1, then a second case on April 6. ICE has since listed three more cases at the Florence Detention Center.

Those interviewed by AZCIR, including attorneys, detainees and their relatives, said they believe the cases in Arizona immigration detention facilities are more widespread.

“I think that the numbers that are reported are extremely lower than what they probably are,” said Juliana Manzanarez, an attorney who visited clients in two immigration detention centers on Friday, including La Palma.

ICE has not disclosed how many detainees have been tested for the virus. The agency’s website states, “Detainees are being tested for COVID-19 in line with CDC guidance.”

On Saturday, Rodrigo Martínez’s fiancée, Sadie Tristam, questioned how widespread testing is in La Palma. “If they’re not letting them go see the medic, there’s no way for them to get tested,” she said. “Clearly something is going on in his pod and the surrounding pods.”

Martínez said he shares a pod with at least 80 other people, and that he’s seen at least eight others who are sick like him. “They have the same symptoms as I do, they have fever and they don’t get out of bed,” he said.

Martínez said he noticed the guards in his pod started wearing masks and gloves about a week ago. But he said that detainees like him had no protection until this Friday, when they were given masks.

“I don’t know if what I have is the virus, but we have a right to some care that is not being given to us,” he said.

Martínez said his symptoms started first with what he believes was a fever. The following day his chest was hurting and he had a cough. The third day, he had difficulty breathing, felt dizzy and had a headache. He has felt like there is water in his lungs.

Immigrant Detention

Immigration detention is considered civil – rather than criminal – detention. It is not meant to be punitive, but instead is used to compel immigrants to attend deportation hearings and leave the country if they are ordered deported by a judge. In most cases, immigration officials have wide discretion to release people on bond, parole or alternatives to detention like ankle bracelets.


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Frustrated, in pain and without any medication for relief, on Friday evening, he called Tristam in despair.

“He downplays everything, seriously downplays it,” she told AZCIR. “I’ve never heard him admit that he was in pain.”

Upon learning about Martínez’s deteriorating condition, his lawyer, Delia Salvatierra, sent an email to ICE late Saturday morning requesting he get medical care.

She got an email back an hour and a half later from an ICE officer named Kristine Brisson, who wrote, “Thank you for the information; medical staff at the facility is aware and providing care to him at this time.”

Salvatierra then called Tristam, who at the time happened to be on the other line speaking to Martínez in La Palma. Tristam said Martínez confirmed he still had not received care.

Later on Saturday, Salvatierra requested an update from ICE. “Mr. Martinez was evaluated by medical today and is stable at this time,” Brisson wrote back at 5:30 p.m.

ICE, on its website, said in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency “decided to reduce the population of all detention facilities to 70 percent or less to increase social distancing.” The agency also identified more than 160 individuals for release, including pregnant women and people over the age of 60. Last week, ICE sent updated guidance to offices around the country directing them to expand the list of vulnerable detainees to consider for release.

Alexis Salazar, a 53-year-old Cuban man in La Palma who is detained in a separate pod from Martínez, said on Thursday he suffers from chronic bronchitis. He sent messages to medical staff through a mail drop system over a week ago requesting to be considered as part of the sequestered vulnerable population. In some cases, vulnerable detainees are considered for release. He has yet to hear back.

“I fear for my life,” Salazar said.

Federal judges around the country, including in California, Pennsylvania and New York, have ordered some detainees with health conditions to be released in response to lawsuits. The Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project sued ICE and CoreCivic staff in U.S. District Court in Phoenix on April 1 to compel the release of eight immigrants with preexisting health conditions detained in La Palma and Eloy Detention Center. ICE has since released four of the detainees.

Martínez said on Saturday that his pod is currently closed off from others. But a week ago, detainees from different pods were still eating in the same cafeteria, according to multiple AZCIR interviews with detainees.

“Here everything is shared, the virus gets in here and it would be like a guillotine,” said Felix Villalobos, 26, an asylum seeker from Venezuela from another pod, who has been detained in La Palma for five months.

AZCIR spoke with detainees who said there was no soap to wash their hands in the cafeteria, and cited a shortage of soap in general. Several men in La Palma said cleaning the pod falls to detainees and there are not always adequate cleaning supplies. Martínez said his pod has run out of disinfectant and no longer has gloves for cleaning.

Ivan Hernández, a 32-year-old Cuban asylum seeker, who is in a different pod, said he has also observed shortages of soap to clean the floors. “We do it ourselves and we try to do the best we can, ” he said.

In an April 10 statement, CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist wrote “staff adhere to the CDC recommendations for cleaning and disinfection during the COVID-19 response” and “soap is readily available.” ICE echoes this on its website.

Salvatierra said she is alarmed ICE has not notified the public or immigration attorneys that detainees in La Palma are experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 beyond the two confirmed cases that have been reported to the public. Because it is difficult for immigration attorneys to have secure legal phone calls at most detention facilities, some are still visiting La Palma to confer with their clients and get paperwork signed – as Manzanarez did on Friday.

Salvatierra said without more transparent information about the situation inside La Palma, immigration attorneys may wind up bringing back the virus from the facility and infecting their families and communities. “That’s unacceptable,” she said of ICE. “They’re not protecting the public.”

Laura Lynch, senior policy counsel at American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C., said reports like Martínez’s are not unique as the virus is spreading in congregate settings such as detention facilities.

“We’re continuing to receive numerous reports from attorneys all over the country with concerns that their clients are ill or individuals near them in the detention facilities have COVID-19 symptoms,” Lynch said.

Court records show Martínez had a bond hearing scheduled for April 7. Salvatierra said she had expected an immigration judge to grant bond, which would have allowed Martínez to get back to Tristam, his 10-year-old daughter and his job as a kitchen manager.

On April 1, the day COVID-19 was confirmed in La Palma, Salvatierra asked the court to move up her client’s bond hearing date in the hopes of getting Martínez out of detention given the threat of the virus.

Her motion was denied.

A day before Martínez’s scheduled bond hearing on April 7, the Florence Immigration Court, where the hearing was scheduled, abruptly closed and the hearing was rescheduled to April 21.

“I have done everything I can,” Salvatierra said.

Editor’s Note: The Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project lawsuit was filed with lawyers from Perkins Coie, LLP, including its partner Dan Barr, who previously represented AZCIR in a 2017 Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Barr and his firm have also provided media-related legal representation for reporters Jude Joffe-Block and Valeria Fernández.