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A few weeks ago, Ashley was supposed to marry her fiancé, Leo.*
But then the coronavirus pandemic reached Georgia, where Leo is locked up at Stewart Detention Center, an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement facility operated by the private, Nashville-based company CoreCivic. Stewart shut down all family visitation, Ashley said, meaning she couldn't come down to the facility from North Carolina to marry her partner as planned.
Yet Leo told her that new detained migrants were being brought to Stewart without proper screening for the virus. He also said that people held at Stewart had been taken to the Atlanta airport for deportation flights, even though their countries of origin weren't accepting any travelers. They were then brought back to the detention center.
These concerns prompted detained migrants at Stewart to protest, demanding answers from ICE about the risks to their health at the facility. In response, CoreCivic employees threatened to take away phone privileges, meaning that people held at Stewart wouldn't be able to keep in touch with their loved ones.
Now, Stewart has its first case of COVID-19. On Tuesday, March 31, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that a facility employee tested positive. In response, 33 detained migrants who may have been in contact with that employee have been placed in quarantine. A few days later, CoreCivic acknowledged that a second employee tested positive.
Ashley and Leo's marriage is on hold, and she's worried she might not be able to see him before his possible deportation.
See our other COVID-19 coverage:
– COVID-19: An extensive—and growing—list of political demands in the South
– 'Solidarity over charity'— mutual aid across foreign borders
– In pandemic times, radical imagination matters more than ever.
– COVID-19: Context, tools, and strategies for workers from organizers and experts.
– Op-ed: Stay-at-home policy isn't effective without economic security and education.
– Neighbors helping neighbors: a list of coronavirus mutual aid efforts in the South.
– Detainment centers are not equipped to handle the coronavirus, experts say.
– Social justice in a time of social distancing.
"It's all the problems of family separation with ICE, exacerbated," Ashley said. "This person I love could be there for months. ICE really has responsibility to take action as soon as possible because they're literally in control of people's wellbeing and survival."
"They're not going to take a face mask from anyone, from any American, to put it on an immigrant."
Across the country, detained migrants have urged officials to release them from ICE custody amid the worsening pandemic. The situation looks particularly dire in the South, where ICE has rapidly expanded its capacity at for-profit facilities in recent months.
In late March, migrants detained at the South Texas Processing Center clashed with guards over lack of safe conditions at the complex; in response, guards pepper-sprayed nearly 60 detainees. The next day, seven detained migrants were pepper-sprayed at a detention center in Pine Prairie, Louisiana. Since then, a detainee at Pine Prairie tested positive for COVID-19. Both facilities are run by Florida-based Geo-Group, under a contract with ICE. Meanwhile, migrants held at Richwood Detention Center in Louisiana—operated by the private group LaSalle Corrections—staged a hunger strike to protest conditions at the facility and inaction by ICE in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
"They're not going to take a face mask from anyone, from any American, to put it on an immigrant," said a detained migrant at Richwood, according to a press release from the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice on March 26. "That means we are going to die. ICE doesn't guarantee us any kind of safety."
For weeks, advocates have been sounding the alarm about the risk of a massive coronavirus outbreak in ICE facilities. Many have cited lack of access to hygiene products, close living quarters, and frequent transfers between detention centers—as well as a history of outbreaks and medical neglect at ICE facilities—as major causes for concern. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU of Louisiana have sued the federal government to force the release of ICE detainees.
"It's just not possible to socially distance yourself in a prison type of facility," said Priyanka Bhatt, staff attorney at Project South, an advocacy group based in Atlanta that has long worked to expose inhumane practices at Georgia's ICE facilities. "It is not safe for anyone to be stuck inside there, especially with a lack of medical healthcare that they're getting. It is a human rights violation."
"This is reminiscent of the actions of authoritarian regimes that cannot tolerate truth-telling."
Over the last few weeks, Project South learned of the current conditions in Stewart. Through coalition partners like Siembra NC and Georgia Detention Watch, attorneys representing detained people, and loved ones, they heard that some detained migrants had to sleep on the floor due to overcrowding at the facility. There were reports of individuals with cold-like symptoms who weren't receiving medical care. One detained migrant shared fears that new arrivals who'd recently been transferred to the facility—as well as staff members—may have been exposed to the virus, and could be spreading it inside Stewart.
"We're just waiting to get infected," Ventura Quintanar-Rico, a detained migrant at Stewart, told members of Siembra NC in a phone call. "They're not taking the most basic coronavirus precautions at this place. If one of us gets infected, all of us will, we are not able to stay 6 feet apart from each other, we share space with 62 other people. We don't want to die here and it usually takes three to four days to get medical attention here."
On March 24, Project South staff heard that detained migrants at Stewart were holding a hunger strike, demanding answers about the pandemic and whether they could be released from the facility. Two days later, Azadeh Shahshahani, the organization's Legal and Advocacy Director, posted a thread on Twitter about the Stewart strike. "350 immigrants detained at the corporate-run Stewart Detention center went on hunger strike to protest their prolonged & inhumane detention despite the imminent threat of the coronavirus," she wrote.
"There are plenty of ways to release people safely back into the community, back to their loved ones."
Hours later, Shahshahani received an email from an ICE official denying that a hunger strike was taking place at Stewart. "Persons who spread misinformation are engaged in irresponsible behavior by needlessly spreading fear, and they do a disservice to the communities they claim to represent. I reiterate that there are no hunger strikes at the Stewart Detention Center," the official wrote.
In a comment to Scalawag, Shahshahani said that ICE's email "was an outrageous action. ICE engaged in a reprehensible tactic of intimidation in an attempt to scare us into stopping our advocacy for immigrants' rights. This is reminiscent of the actions of authoritarian regimes that cannot tolerate truth-telling."
ICE's denial of the Stewart strike might be part of a pattern. The Texas Tribune and ProPublica reported that the clash at the South Texas Processing Center last week was precipitated by a strike lead by detainees who serve as cafeteria and janitorial workers at the facility. While ICE confirmed that there was an "impromptu protest" there, the agency denied that a strike had taken place.
On Wednesday, March 31, Project South authored a letter—signed by over 50 organizations—to Georgia Congressional representatives requesting the immediate release of immigrants in ICE custody in the state. In it, they reference multiple deaths of detained migrants in Stewart that have occurred in recent years, including that of Yulio Castro Garrido, who died of pneumonia while at Stewart in 2018 despite being healthy prior to his detention. They also quote public health experts, like Dr. Amy Zeidan of Emory University, who warn of the Stewart facility's isolation from healthcare centers; it is at least an hour away from the nearest ICU.
"If the virus spreads inside of a prison, jail, or detention center, there is no doubt that local hospitals will see hundreds, if not thousands, of new patients in a short period of time," Zeidan wrote.
Outlining their response to COVID-19 on their website, CoreCivic says that their "plan and practices in addressing COVID-19 build on the extensive work we do every day to run clean, healthy and safe facilities."
After the report of the Stewart employee's positive case, Ashley said Leo relayed that CoreCivic employees insisted the situation was just a rumor—even though Leo watched a whole block get quarantined, and saw guards wearing hazmat suits. Bhatt said Project South and other organizations will continue to put pressure on elected officials in the coming weeks, urging them to release detained migrants.
"There are plenty of ways to release people safely back into the community, back to their loved ones," Ashley said. "ICE and CoreCivic seem like they're not taking any action to do so."
As detained migrants in ICE custody brace for an outbreak nationwide, the Trump administration has sped up construction of a wall along the country's southern border, falsely claiming that the barrier will stop the spread of the virus. A woman detained in Louisiana pointed out that the money being used to detain migrants would be better spent responding to the pandemic.
*Scalawag is using Ashley and Leo's 's middle names to protect their identities.