'We may die and are afraid': Federal judge makes public letters sent to him by ICE detainees

©Miami Herald

MIAMI — Amid mounting complaints about conditions inside South Florida’s immigration detention facilities during the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. immigration officials told a Miami federal judge that they have secured funding for more sanitizing supplies and that new procedures are in place to document their efforts to stop the virus from spreading.

The sworn statements by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement filed late Monday are part of an ongoing federal lawsuit filed April 13 seeking the release of detainees from the Krome Processing Center in Miami-Dade, the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach and the Glades County detention center in Moore Haven.

In the documents — submitted in response to scathing grievances filed by detainees and their lawyers last week — ICE told the court that the agency is “aware” of the claims that detainees who test positive for COVID-19 are being mixed with those who have not been tested, along with complaints about lack of masks and the inconsistent usage of them, no social distancing, inadequate soap and hand sanitizer supplies and lack of coronavirus education.

Though ICE’s 22-page submission did not deny the allegations, the agency told U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke that the government has moved to get money for hand sanitizer dispensers and cleaning products.

ICE also said it has developed seating charts for its vans and buses to “maximize social distancing while transporting ICE detainees,” as well as a mask receipt system; the agency said it also posted “wash your hands” signs in bathrooms and common areas.

“I am aware that some detainees have alleged that they are not provided masks, or that staff at Krome or Glades have not worn their masks while in contact with detainees,” said Liana J. Castano, ICE’s Miami assistant field office director. “In order to document this practice, Krome staff have created a mask issuance receipt for incoming detainees and require that the detainee sign for the mask upon intake” and transfers.

Castano said she is also “aware of allegations that the soap dispensers are not refilled with sufficient speed at Glades and Krome, and that hand sanitizer is unavailable at Glades. At Krome, Purell Hand Sanitizer dispensers have been installed in all housing units,” she said. “ICE has approved funding for the procurement of hand sanitizer dispensers and product at Glades.”

On Tuesday, the six national immigration law firms representing the South Florida detainees called ICE’s 22-page declaration “skeletal.”

“In short, ICE has offered no briefing and Ms. Castano’s declaration does not respond to the core testimony, which shows ICE’s persistent failure to take the steps needed to protect the people in its care from COVID-19,” they told the judge, noting that the agency failed to address various sworn statements by sick detainees, including testimonies from people who say “they were transferred to Krome, and then transferred back to Glades in uncomfortable and crammed conditions to be tested for COVID-19.”

Ultimately, all of the detainees who were transferred tested positive and returned to the same dormitory they originally left from, alongside people who have never been tested for COVID-19, the attorneys said.

Immigration lawyers complained to the judge that “Ms. Castano does not address this incident at all. Nor does she address the testimony of (six others citing) similar circumstances of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 being placed in housing with people who have not tested positive — in direct violation of this Court’s June 6 Order.”

ICE’s response said the agency follows federal guidelines and that there are currently no detainees being quarantined.

“Pursuant to the CDC Interim Guidance on Management of Coronavirus Disease 2019, Glades quarantined entire housing units due to contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19,” ICE wrote. “During this time, no new individuals were added to the group. The entire group was monitored and assessed by medical staff twice a day for COVID-19 symptoms. All symptomatic detainees were tested for COVID-19.”

On June 6, Cooke issued an order banning ICE from mixing people who have COVID-19 with people who have not tested positive. She also ruled that ICE could transfer detainees only for “immediately necessary medical appointments and release from custody.”

During the three months of litigation, detainees have written to a magistrate judge Cooke assigned to the case, Jonathan Goodman, telling him what it’s been like being detained during a global health crisis. Late Monday, Goodman submitted to Cooke 198 pages of handwritten notes addressed to him personally by detainees.

Rodney London was one of them.

On June 10, London told Goodman he hasn’t been able to speak to his deportation officer because “their union would not allow them to come to work here because of the pandemic.”

“So if they do not want to be here, or not allowed to come, why on earth should we be detained here, our lives matter just as much as the next person,” London wrote in black ink.

“This shows a total disregard for our safety and well being, and should not be the way human beings act especially not during this COVID-19 pandemic … No one should be forgotten or left to die at any facility in the United States of America, especially now.”

On May 17, detainee James Bishop told the court that guards and ICE officials “lied about sanitizing beds sick people slept on” and that “they also ignored deliberately the symptoms we suffer from the covid19 pandemic.”

“We requested to be released and (guards) and ICE officers beat us,” Bishop said.

In a letter signed by about 100 detainees on April 16, detainees told Goodman to “please come see us immediately or send investigators” because “we were served spoiled food, we’re starving, bathrooms are bad, violations of rights … beds are two feet apart and not six feet apart.”

“We may die and are afraid,” the collective handwritten statement said.

The next court hearing on the subject is scheduled for Thursday via Zoom.