'They Didn't Listen to Us': ICE Detainee Who Waged Hunger Strikes for COVID-19 Protections Gets Virus

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Juan Jose Erazo Herrera speaks to a visitor on a ICE detention center phone
Juan Jose Erazo Herrera, photographed while in ICE custody shortly before he turned 19, in March 2019. (Courtesy of Juan Jose Erazo Herrera)

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At the beginning of January, Juan Jose Erazo Herrera found himself coughing up blood and having difficulty breathing. The 20-year-old asylum seeker, held by immigration authorities at a jail north of Sacramento, tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 7, a few days after his symptoms began.

The diagnosis felt particularly stinging to Erazo Herrera. He had repeatedly called on officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Yuba County Jail to do more to prevent a coronavirus outbreak at the facility, including waging hunger strikes last year to protest what he believed were unsafe conditions.

“They didn’t listen to us,” Erazo Herrera said in Spanish. “And it’s really unfair. It’s not our fault we get sick when we can’t protect ourselves.”

The coronavirus has spread rapidly at the Yuba County Jail, infecting about half of all the people currently locked up there. More than 120 county inmates and nine ICE detainees at the facility have tested positive for COVID-19 since last month.

Guards isolated Erazo Herrera in a small, concrete cell with no windows for 12 days, he said. When he was first placed there, he said the conditions were squalid, with a filthy toilet, moldy walls and a bed covered in dust and other people’s hair.

“I’m not going to lie, when I first saw the cell, I started crying,” said Erazo Herrera, who is originally from El Salvador. “I tried to protest. It made me so sad to see how dirty it was.”

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Guards told him the unit was the only one available for quarantine, he said. He asked for cleaning products and wiped it down himself despite having a severe headache and shortness of breath.

During the pandemic, a federal judge in San Francisco has been monitoring conditions at the jail, located in Marysville, and on Dec. 23 he ordered ICE take steps to protect detainees, including testing them at least weekly for the coronavirus, and ensuring cells are cleaned and disinfected.

U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria intervened after immigrants held at Yuba County Jail and another facility in Bakersfield sued to force ICE to release detainees in an effort to reduce the detained population and allow for social distancing.

But the cleaning requirement at Yuba County Jail isn’t being met, said Kelly Wells, an attorney with the San Francisco Public Defender’s immigration unit, who represents Erazo Herrera.

“We've heard consistently from every single detainee who has been moved since the order that they have arrived to filthy cells that clearly hadn't even been cleaned, much less disinfected,” she said.

Exterior doors of isolation cells at Yuba County Jail
ICE detainees and other people incarcerated at Yuba County Jail can be placed in isolation in windowless 'safety cells' for days at a time. (Courtesy Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP)

A spokeswoman with the Yuba County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, referred questions to ICE. The immigration agency also declined to comment about the conditions of Erazo Herrera’s medical segregation.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement cannot comment due to pending litigation,” said ICE spokesman Jonathan Moor in a statement. “However, a lack of comment should not be construed as an agreement with or stipulation to any allegations.”

Nearly 9,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 while in ICE detention, according to agency figures.

ICE detention centers must ensure that medical isolation is “operationally distinct” from any punitive form of housing, according to the agency’s pandemic response requirements. For instance, facilities must provide detainees with access to TV, recreation and books to the fullest extent possible.

But immigrants held at various detention centers, including private prisons and county jails, have reported that ICE is misusing solitary confinement for COVID-19 quarantine. Erazo Herrera said the 12-day quarantine he experienced felt like a punishment, and his mental health deteriorated.

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He was kept in the cell alone, 22 hours per day, he said. For days, there was nothing for him to do to pass the time. The jail eventually allowed him to have books friends outside the jail sent him, he said.

“That cell is not for a human being, it’s like for keeping a dangerous animal locked up. There’s no TV, there’s nothing,” said Erazo Herrera. “You start feeling so depressed that you think about killing yourself. You wonder what you’ve done to deserve to be treated this way.”

He was released from medical segregation last week and said he no longer feels severe COVID-19 symptoms.

Since April, the ICE detainee population at Yuba County Jail has decreased from 144 to 16 people. Judge Chhabria ordered the agency to release more than 50 immigrants from the facility. Others were transferred, deported or released by ICE, which can free individuals after assessing their public safety and flight risk.

Attorney Wells said conditions are so miserable that some immigrants held at Yuba County Jail have given up and agreed to be deported after just one month in detention. But Erazo Herrera has endured three years at the jail as he waits for his asylum case to be decided.

“Juan Jose has not agreed to deportation because he really is in a dire situation,” said Wells. “In addition to the abuse that he suffered by his mother, he was also repeatedly beaten by gang members and threatened with death.”

Erazo Herrera fled El Salvador and crossed the U.S. border without a parent when he was 16. Officials with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency responsible for caring for unaccompanied migrant minors, took him into custody and subsequently released him to an older brother in New York, said Wells.

But Erazo Herrera was involved in a robbery, for which he served time at a juvenile facility. When he turned 18, ICE detained him and sent him to the Yuba jail.

Juan Jose Erazo Herrera plays in the snow in New York, where he lived with his brother before his involvement in a robbery led him to be detained by ICE. (Courtesy of Juan Jose Erazo Herrera)

The crime wass a mistake Erazo Herrera said he frequently regrets.

“I’ve paid for it. I haven’t been free since I was 16,” he said. “I just want an opportunity to show that I am different, that I’ve learned a lot while locked up here. I’m not the same kid I was then.”

Recently, a judge in Yuba County Superior Court granted Erazo Herrera special immigrant juvenile status, reserved for undocumented immigrants under age 21 who were abused by a parent, and for whom returning to their home country is not in their best interest.

The classification is not enough for ICE to release him from detention, said Wells, but it opens the door for him to apply for a green card. Still, that may take years.

Erazo Herrera hopes that when he can eventually leave the detention center, he’ll have a chance go to school, work, and one day start an organization that supports young undocumented migrants.

“I’d like to help other kids who’ve gone through similar circumstances as me,” he said.