Lawmakers Visit ICE Migrant Detention Centers and Find a "petri dish of disease"

Miriam and her 15-year old daughter, asylum-seekers from Honduras, have been held at a private prison in Dilley for more than 300 days. 

They are among more than 80 immigrant families being kept at the South Texas Family Residential Center, as it is called by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The facility is ringed in barbed wire and the ICE agents refer to the families as “inmates.”

According to a Congressional delegation who visited the facility June 22, it is also a “petri dish of disease,” that threatens both the families and the guards running the facility.

U.S. Reps. Sylvia Garcia, D- Houston, and Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, held an online news conference the same day calling on ICE to release migrants from these facilities.

“ICE isn’t doing their job and are doing a disservice to their employees and to the people who are detained and imprisoned at these facilities by not taking proper medical precautions,” Garcia said.

There have been 153 reported cases of COVID-19 among ICE employees across all detention centers and 853 confirmed cases among all detainees.

According to the lawmakers, detainees can’t  follow proper safety protocols as they usually don’t have enough room to stay six feet apart from each other. Both children and adults cannot sit with friends, Garcia describes, and just recently, during a peaceful protest, after hearing news about the recent protests that occurred nationwide, migrants were pepper sprayed.

Although the facilities provide masks and sanitizers -- both representatives described scenes of infants as young as 12 months old wearing cloth masks -- families said they  got the protective gear just a week before the Congressional visit. 

“It looked like a window dressing for our visit,” Garcia said.

Miriam told them she was frightened after being presented with a form that was written in English. She didn’t sign, and later found out through her lawyers that her daughter would have been taken away from her if she had. 

“On April 24, ICE was directed by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California to make every effort to promptly and safely release juvenile aliens who have suitable custodians and who are not a flight risk or a danger to themselves or others,” ICE said in a statement.

According to a report by the San Antonio Express-News, Miriam is one of  350 parents who were presented with a form to authorize the release of their children while parents stayed detained.

Julieth, Miriam’s daughter, suffers from migraines, asthma, chronic gastritis and tachycardia, a rapid heart rate disorder. Because of this, Julieth is at high-risk of becoming seriously ill if she is infected with the COVID-19. 

“ICE barely lifts a finger to make sure these people are safe,” Castro said.

Last month, according to a report by the Texas Tribune, the GEO Group— the private company that runs the immigration detention center in Pearsall— was scrutinized for a lack of transparency over how the facility is preventing the spread of coronavirus.

The Pearsall facility has reported 47 positive cases of COVID-19, making up 90% of all infections in Frio County. 

Garcia said she is concerned about limited care and that the ICE detention centers aren’t testing everyone within.

A testing machine had been in the Dilley facility, but not all families detained have been tested. Garcia said she was told that the machine was loaned out to another facility.