Note: this article, featuring Government Accountability Project, was originally published here.
‘Everybody Was Sick’: Inside an ICE Detention Center
Like jails, ICE facilities are faced with tough decisions as to how to keep their dense populations safe.
Last month, Makalay Tarawally propped her 2-month-old in front of her phone so that his father could meet him for the first time, virtually. As a blood technician for a Covid-19 hospital unit, Ms. Tarawally knew how careful she needed to be.
From her aunt’s house in Edison, N.J., she called a room at the Red Roof Inn. The father of her two children, Abdul Massaquoi, was isolating there because of possible exposure to the coronavirus. He waved through the phone screen.
Mr. Massaquoi, 44, was stuck at the hotel because he had been detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement last fall while on his way to work as a truck driver for Macy’s. Accused of forging his green card in 2018, Mr. Massaquoi was arrested after missing a court date in 2019. According to his lawyer, a summons had been sent to his old address and not forwarded to his new home.
Mr. Massaquoi had just been released from the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey, where 18 people had tested positive for the virus; a nonprofit was paying for his stay at the Red Roof so he could make sure he had not been infected.
The environment at the detention center, said Mr. Massaquoi, a native of Sierra Leone, was stressful. “Everybody was sick,” he said, “and we were all right next to each other.”
ICE detention facilities are hotbeds for the virus, with 85 cases already discovered in New York and New Jersey. As of May 11, 36 people tested positive in New Jersey. Four staff members at the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny, one of the state’s four detention centers, have died from Covid-19.
Like jails, detention centers are faced with tough decisions as to how to keep their dense populations safe. Since the coronavirus outbreak in March, ICE has suspended social visits and staggered meals and recreation times, and is monitoring detainees for Covid-19 regularly at all of its facilities, a spokesman said. One of the agency’s “highest priorities is the health and safety of those in our custody,” he continued.
To that end, ICE has also released about 900 people since March. Detention bookings are down by 60 percent compared to last year’s data. About 30,000 people are currently being held nationwide, the lowest number since the beginning of the Trump administration.
But that number is still too high, according to the more than 4,000 physicians who sent a letter to ICE demanding the release of even more people “to avoid preventable deaths.” As of May 11, ICE reported that of the almost 1,700 detainees who had been tested, roughly half had received positive results for the virus.
The pandemic has become a new front in the debate over immigration, pitting opponents of President Trump’s policies against an administration trying to curtail migration, both illegal and legal, and more aggressively enforce immigration laws.
In New York and New Jersey, activists are working to protect and, ideally, release all ICE detainees. Some are writing letters to Gov. Phil Murphy, demanding that he issue an emergency order to vacate all facilities. Others are participating in regular drive-by protests all over New Jersey, honking their horns in front of the jails from cars plastered with homemade #FreeThemAll posters.
“It’s always been a crisis, but I would say now it’s much worse,” said Rosa Santana, the program director of First Friends of New Jersey and New York, a nonprofit.
Two of New Jersey’s detention centers, the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack and the Hudson County Correctional Facility, house ICE detainees mostly found in New York. The other two, the Elizabeth Detention Center in Elizabeth and the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark, mainly hold immigrants detained in New Jersey. All four jails receive people apprehended at the United States/Mexico border or at points of entrance like airports. Some are transferred in from other states.
Before the virus hit, about 2,200 detainees were held in New Jersey’s four facilities, sleeping in bunk beds and sharing bathrooms, Ms. Santana said. Now, following new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and several lawsuits, about 1,100 remain. They stay in cells up to 23 hours a day to reduce time spent in communal areas, with sick detainees sent to separate units to be quarantined.
Edwin Tineo, who spent 13 months in the Hudson County Correctional Facility, witnessed a hunger strike before he was released in March. The protest was in response to a lack of supplies like hand soap and toilet paper, but also a lack of information.
“Nobody was telling us nothing” when the pandemic started, said Mr. Tineo, 30, a husband and father of two who lives in Fresh Meadows, Queens, and worked as an HVAC installer before ICE detained him in 2019. “Being there was the most stressful thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” he said. “It was like being blindfolded.”
In March, ICE started to evaluate its detained population for those who might be at “higher risk for severe illness as a result of Covid-19,” a spokesman said, “to determine whether continued detention was appropriate.” This resulted in the release of hundreds of detainees.
Until recently, Mr. Massaquoi, the Macy’s truck driver, had somehow slipped through the cracks, despite exhibiting a number of underlying health conditions, according to his lawyer, John P. Leschak, who was hired to take on Mr. Massaquoi’s case by the same nonprofit that paid for his quarantine at the hotel. “The man suffers from hypertension, which is the leading comorbidity in Covid cases in New York and New Jersey, and he also has asthma and is prediabetic,” Mr. Leschak said. “And other than a minor offense from 20 years ago, he had nothing on his criminal record.”
But Mr. Massaquoi was one of the lucky ones. He tested negative for the virus, and after an uneventful quarantine at the Red Roof Inn, was finally reunited with his family, in the flesh, this month. He was especially moved by his newborn.
“I had been thinking I wasn’t ever going to be able to see him; I cried when I saw him,” he said. “And my other son, he was so happy to have his Daddy back. I’m praying that everything is OK. I don’t know what’s going to come up. But I worry every day.”