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First COVID-19 Death at an ICE Detention Center Hits in San Diego

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Across the country, advocates and protesters have demanded ICE to release people from detention facilities to ensure that immigrants and detention center personnel receive prompt testing and treatment for coronavirus.  (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Update: Thursday, May 7, 2020 at 5:15 pm

Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Thursday that Carlos Escobar-Mejia died Wednesday at 2:15 a.m. at the Paradise Valley Hospital in National City, Calif. He was admitted to the hospital April 24 and tested positive for COVID-19 the same day, officials said.

They confirmed that his death was the first known coronavirus fatality of a person in ICE detention.

Escobar-Mejia, 57, had been in ICE custody since Jan. 10, the agency said in a statement, adding that a medical screening showed he suffered from hypertension and that he told officials he was diabetic. An immigration judge had denied his release on bond April 15, deeming him a flight risk, ICE said.

Escobar-Mejia, originally from El Salvador, first came to the United States in 1980, officials said.

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In the statement, ICE reported that 181 immigrants held in detention at the Otay Mesa Detention Center have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since April 1, with 140 of them currently in ICE custody. As of Thursday, 753 detainees nationwide have been confirmed to have the virus, out of 1528 tested.

The Otay Mesa facility stopped accepting new detainees on April 2, according to the ICE statement, and the total number of people held there has been reduced — from 996 on Feb. 29, to 629 as of May 5.

Original story:

A 57-year-old man held at an immigration detention facility in San Diego has died of COVID-19, immigrant advocates reported Wednesday. It is the first known coronavirus death among the roughly 30,000 people detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

ICE officials would not confirm the death, saying the agency’s policy is to announce detainee deaths within 48 hours.

The man, identified as Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia by The San Diego Union-Tribune, was originally from El Salvador and had been held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center for about four months. He had spent his last days in a hospital, where he died, according to Dulce Garcia, executive director of the advocacy group Border Angels.

“ICE set up a death trap and it was just a matter of time,” said Garcia, an attorney who represents immigrants detained at Otay Mesa. “We’ve known for weeks that they don’t have enough testing for everyone in there, and when you do test positive they put you into these cohorts with 100 other people. They should be releasing everyone.”

Another San Diego immigration lawyer said a distraught client of his at Otay Mesa called him to say that guards had come to her pod Wednesday morning and told detainees that a man housed in another pod had died of COVID-19.

“I can feel in her voice how scared she is,” attorney Ian Seruelo said of his client, a Mexican asylum-seeker who is trying to get released from custody. “There is this atmosphere inside where everyone is scared of what’s going to happen. They’re living on the edge. They don't know if they could be the next one to be infected.”

The death comes one week after a federal judge in San Diego ordered ICE to immediately consider dozens of medically vulnerable people, including those 60 or older, for release from detention at Otay Mesa. As of Monday, just two individuals had been released.

In his emergency order, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw called the conditions at the Otay Mesa facility unconstitutional, because they put detainees “at substantial risk of serious illness or death.”

The order followed a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of San Diego, calling for ICE and private prison operator CoreCivic to dramatically reduce the number of detainees at Otay Mesa. ACLU staff attorney Monika Langarica said Escobar Mejia should have been released as medically vulnerable.

“Today one of those people has died because ICE refused to release him when he still had a chance to survive this deadly virus,” said Langarica in a statement Wednesday. “We continue to call on ICE and CoreCivic to act urgently and with humanity. This tragic news is even more evidence that failing to act will result in cruel and needless death.”

The case is one of numerous suits filed in federal courts around the country in recent weeks, urgently requesting ICE to protect detained immigrants by releasing them from custody and implementing stronger social distancing and hygiene measures for those who remain locked up.

Officials with ICE and CoreCivic did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Attorney Seruelo said his client should also be released, based on her heightened risk for complications of COVID-19. He said she had been treated for diabetes for years in Mexico but lacked documentation of her condition. He also said she had been tested for diabetes two weeks ago by ICE medical staff but was still waiting for the test results to be released to her.

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There are currently 132 ICE detainees and 10 ICE staff at Otay Mesa who have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the agency. That’s more than triple the number of cases two weeks ago, and by far the largest outbreak at an ICE detention center. In addition, CoreCivic has reported at least nine of its employees with confirmed cases. And 54 federal prisoners held for the U.S. Marshals Service at the facility have also been diagnosed with the virus.

Nationally, ICE reports that it has tested 1,460 detained people for COVID-19 and 705 of those tests — almost half — have come back positive.

Sen. Kamala Harris, who last month joined with a dozen other Democratic senators calling on ICE to release vulnerable and low-risk detainees, decried Escobar Mejia's death.

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“Tragically, this death was likely preventable,” Harris told KQED. “For months, I have called on the Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Prisons to act quickly to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at facilities like Otay Mesa Detention Center. It is imperative that officials take every step available to prevent more illness and loss.”

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