Manuel’s arm has been hurting for weeks. Speaking over a video call from the Buffalo Federal Detention Center in Batavia, New York, he explained that he suffers from complex regional pain syndrome and would regularly see a doctor, but not now.
“In a normal world, I would go out of the jail to see a doctor. But with the virus, I’m no longer able to,” said Manuel, who, like all the detainees in this article, asked Documented not to use his real name for fear of reprisal. “I haven’t been able to sleep because I can no longer see a doctor.”
According to detainees at Batavia, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has blocked all visits to doctors unless they have a coronavirus related emergency; meaning many who have long-term chronic conditions have to go without care.
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Detainees at the Buffalo Federal Detention Center in upstate New York are fearful for their lives as the global pandemic threatens to spread throughout immigration detention centers. ICE told a federal court that it could maintain the Center for Disease Control’s COVID-19 guidelines within the facility, but it has not assuaged their fears.
Across the country, there have been calls for ICE to release immigrants from detention. Health experts, former ICE officials and advocates have sounded the alarm that the conditions within the detention centers, similar to prisons, could be a recipe for disaster if there are outbreaks within facilities. The agency also has a poor track record of handling contagious diseases. Several federal judges have agreed and ordered immigrants released from ICE detention and the agency committed to releasing 600 of its approximately 35,000 detainees who have been deemed “vulnerable.”
In the past few weeks, the number of immigrants who have tested positive for coronavirus has steadily grown to 32 cases, according to ICE. New Jersey is home to 15 of those cases. Hunger strikes have erupted in the county jails that house ICE detainees.
At Batavia, John has been detained for two years. He said that on Monday, March 23rd, almost all of the inmates in his section of the detention center decided not to eat out of protest. They issued a letter through Justice for Migrant Families WNY, a local advocacy group, calling for better conditions in detention.
“There’s no social distancing,” John said. “Officers come in and out all the time, so does medical staff. A lot of us just don’t want to die in here.”
Mark has been in detention for two years after serving a sentence in state prison. He has a number of chronic conditions that make him highly vulnerable to the virus, he said.
“I am extremely fearful of suffering to death and dying alone without my family,” Mark said.
All the detainees that Documented spoke with said little had changed in the facility since news of the pandemic began to spread in the U.S. John watches the news nightly at 6pm and began to get worried a few weeks ago. He then read articles about inmates getting infected by the guards.
He claims they receive a small bar of soap to wash their hands, which only lasts one or two washes. The prison is broken up into nine units, according to court filings, the prison can hold 650 detainees and it is presently detaining 374 individuals. In Manuel’s unit, all the prisoners are moving around in an open area where it is very difficult to socially distance and remain six feet apart.
ICE did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.
Prisoners’ Legal Services, a public defenders office that represents immigrants who are detained at Batavia, filed a lawsuit asking a judge to release immunocompromised detainees. U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo rejected their petition but ordered ICE to detail how it intends to implement CDC guidelines within the facility.
In a plan outlined in a court filing, ICE’s Regional Clinic Director Captain Abelardo Montalvo, M.D., said that ICE would take the temperature of staff members at the facility staff as they entered the grounds and would limit all gatherings of staff. This included “all classroom firearms annual training sessions.” All new arrivals are placed in quarantine, and 13 of the facilities detainees were classified as vulnerable due to their age or underlying health conditions and were placed in facilities that allow for social distancing. Detainees are charged with cleaning the facility three times per day using Fresh Breeze, a disinfectant cleaning solution.
In the court filings, ICE argued that the detainees, “are safer and better cared for within the confines of the [detention facility] than they would be outside it.”
“We’re definitely concerned about it,” said John Peng, an attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, rejecting the idea that people would be better off in detention. “They’re prepared to quarantine people within conditions usually used for solitary confinement to be able to address the social distancing.”
New detainees are also being brought into the facility. According to advocates, 40-50 detainees were transferred from New Jersey jails to Batavia. The facility also detains immigrants who have been released from state prison and are entering deportation proceedings. According to Peng, ICE has continued to pick up prisoners from state facilities and transfer them to Batavia. This includes the Wende Correctional Facility near Buffalo, where disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein tested positive for COVID-19.
Immigrants at Batavia are also still required to appear in immigration court, which is in the same complex as the prison. While criminal courts around the country have wound down most of their functions, immigration courts have continued to operate. The Department of Justice, which operates the courts, has ceased all hearings for non-detained immigrants. But immigrants who are in detention, like those in Batavia, have to continue with their hearings.
The National Association of Immigration Judges, and AFGE Local 511, a union representing ICE prosecutors and immigration lawyers, have called on the Justice Department to close all immigration courts around the country due to the pandemic, as they believe it is putting staff in danger. Several judges, ICE attorneys and immigration lawyers have either been exposed to or caught the virus themselves. Courts have been closed on numerous occasions due to staff members testing positive, only to be reopened shortly after with no explanation.
According to the NAIJ, immigration attorneys representing immigrants and ICE prosecutors representing the government can appear via telephone. The immigrants themselves, the immigration judge and staff appear in the courtroom in person.
Despite being able to appear telephonically, immigration lawyers say the outbreak has made it all but impossible to prepare for cases. The immigration detention centers do not allow lawyers into facilities to meet with their clients without protective equipment, which is difficult to find in that area. They also have limited access to their offices and the ability to file documents to the court, which was a cumbersome process even prior to the pandemic.
“Attorneys are showing up with swimming goggles, kitchen gloves, and a scarf to cover their mouths,” Peng said, describing attorneys trying to see their clients in detention.
Joe Cassidy-Schaffer, an attorney with the Volunteer Lawyers Project, which also represents immigrants at Batavia, was informed by a doctor that he should probably self-isolate after he came back from the Juanita neighborhood in Seattle where the virus ripped through a nursing home. Following the doctor’s orders, he locked himself in his apartment for 14 days. This meant that he could not go out to see his client. He also had difficulty filing motions for the case, which needed to be done in person. He thought, given the circumstances, this might warrant a delay in an upcoming hearing he had at the Batavia Immigration Court before Judge Susan F. Aikman.
To his surprise, he was asked to appear anyway via telephone. Sitting in his pajamas in quarantine at home, he had to move forward with his four hour asylum hearing, representing Manuel. A few days later, they found out the judge had rejected his case.
“[Manuel] ended up breaking down crying and I couldn’t be there to support him,” Cassidy-Schaffer said. “It was rough.”
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