HOUSTON (AP) – In the isolation wing of an American immigrant family detention center, a woman from El Salvador says her 8-year-old son asks if they will die.
With no toys in their room and no opportunity to leave the room, except to use the bathroom, the boy sleeps most of the day and watches television news differently with the rising death toll of the corona virus, his mother said. They are quarantined after coming into contact with an employee who has tested positive for COVID-19. They have not had any symptoms of infection themselves, but were not tested as of Monday afternoon, she said.
There are two other mothers in their rooms, including one with a child who has just turned 2.
“I tell him we won’t die,” said Maria, who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition that her last name would be withheld because she fears retaliation in her home country if she is deported. “We feel tormented. We cannot do anything for our own lives or that of our children. ‘
The isolation of at least three families at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detention Center in Dilley, Texas has raised new fears that the coronavirus is spreading through a facility that has long been accused of providing substandard medical care. ICE confirmed that it had isolated the families, but denied that they had access to toys.
Before her death, 21-month-old Mariee Juarez was detained in Dilley with her mother, Yazmin Juarez, in March 2018. Her mother claimed that Dilley’s medical staff abused Mariee’s respiratory disease.
ICE was indicted earlier this year by supporters of a 5-year-old boy who suffered head injuries before his family was arrested by immigration officers. His aunt claimed that Dilley’s medical staff ignored the child’s severe headache and hypersensitivity to noise. He and his mother were eventually released after an appeals court prevented their deportation.
Maria spoke by phone on Monday and said her son started vomiting on Saturday after eating a few pieces of chicken that she said was bad. Nurses came to their room to briefly examine him, but they did not measure his temperature. Instead, a nurse tapped his forehead with two fingers to check if it was warm, she said.
“If they can’t treat a stomach ache, how will they treat us with the virus?” she said.
ICE and the private prison company CoreCivic, which operates Dilley, about 70 miles southwest of San Antonio, defend the care given to detainees and say they have taken special precautions to limit the spread of the virus. ICE has released 900 people who are considered to be of additional medical risk. The agency is currently holding 24,000 people, down from earlier this year as border agents expelled most of the people trying to enter the United States under an emergency statement mentioning the pandemic.
To date, no cases of coronavirus have been reported in prisoners at Dilley. But according to the agency, at least 2,200 people have contracted the virus nationally in the ICE detention system. Two people died.
CoreCivic said it had learned on June 15 that an employee who was last with Dilley on June 9 tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, a second employee who last worked at the facility on Friday has also tested positive, said company spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist. An ICE employee working at Dilley also tested positive.
Gilchrist said the company is trying to determine what other employees may have had with the two infected people and orders them to quarantine at home.
“A COVID-19 outbreak is already present or will be soon in the facility,” said Shalyn Fluharty, director of Proyecto Dilley, a legal services group representing detained families.
About 160 people are currently being held in the Dilley facility, amply for the capacity of 2,400 people. Many of those families have been detained there since last year. Parents detained there were recently asked to sign paperwork that a sponsor would have designated for their children, a move that advocates said was an attempt to divorce families again.
“There is a clear solution, namely the release of families currently being held,” said Fluharty. “Only by choosing ICE will it offer families one of two options instead: indefinite detention or separation from families.”
Maria said that she and two other mothers were not told the identity of the staff member they were in contact with, only that they had been seen on security camera footage interacting with the employee.
On Monday, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus visited Dilley to observe the circumstances and speak to detainees. About 15 minutes before the group came to the area where she was quarantined, Maria said, a security guard brought each toy for her son and the 2-year-old to a different room.
The child now has a toy car to play with and blank sheets of paper on which to draw animals, trees and small houses, she said.
ICE called the toy claim “false information.”
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