CHICAGO - Alfredo Chavez Garcia spent months agonizing about his health and the future of his six children while at a southern Illinois immigrant detention center where more than half of the detainees now have COVID-19.
The 49-year-old widow with diabetes and high blood pressure said those awaiting immigration hearings at the Pulaski County jail lived in close quarters, had limited access to soap and weren’t given hand sanitizer or masks.
“If I get it, my body’s defenses are weak,” he said. “I was worried I would get sick in there and never see my family again.”
The Mexican immigrant, who’s lived in the U.S. for 40 years and has a green card, was released in April after a federal lawsuit by a Chicago organization that’s made more than 60 similar attempts nationwide to get high-risk immigrant detainees released during the coronavirus pandemic.
Their efforts come as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement faces growing pressure from members of Congress, lawyers and activists who say the agency hasn’t done enough to test and control the virus.
The National Immigrant Justice Center has filed at least 18 federal lawsuits in states including Illinois, Texas and Wisconsin and requested administrative release for at least 44 individuals since mid-March. While two lawsuits were denied, 26 people have been released so far.
The nonprofit argues the outbreak has created unsafe conditions by further delaying proceedings in an already-backlogged immigration court system and keeping people detained longer with limited safeguards.
“It’s setting people up for putting them in a really dangerous situation while they sit and wait,” said NIJC’s litigation director Keren Zwick. “It’s literally a life or death situation.”
Since February, roughly 1,800 immigrant detainees nationwide have tested positive for COVID-19 and two have died, according to ICE.
ICE officials argue they’ve taken protective measures to curb the spread, including offering masks and hand sanitizer, spacing out detainees and staggering meal times Because of the pandemic, federal officials say they’re detaining fewer people and have released hundreds of medically-vulnerable detainees they say aren’t a threat to public safety.
ICE recently announced it would offer voluntary tests for the virus to all detainees at facilities in Tacoma, Washington, and Aurora, Colorado, and would consider following suit elsewhere.
However, advocates and detainees say those efforts are late as the virus has spread quickly, are applied unevenly and don’t go far enough for the roughly 25,000 in ICE custody.
At the Pulaski County Detention Center in Ullin, 45 detainees have tested positive since the pandemic began. Currently, more than half of the 62 detainees have the virus, according to ICE.
The outbreak has prompted U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth to ask federal inspectors general to probe the detention center’s conditions, citing unnecessary risk and “potential strain that an outbreak could place on limited local health resources,” according to a May 29 letter to the Homeland Security and Health and Human Services departments. Ullin is a community of roughly 400 people on Illinois’ southern tip.
ICE spokeswoman Nicole Alberico said claims that Pulaski County and other detention centers aren’t abiding by federal COVID-19 guidelines “are false,” as barriers have been put up in common areas and all detainees have been issued face masks along with “readily abundant”′ cleaning products and hand sanitizer.
Still, Garcia, who reunited with his children in Chicago, felt detainees’ concerns weren’t heard.
Garcia, who worked as a nightclub bouncer and in construction, was taken into immigration custody after serving time for a nonviolent 2018 offense. Immigration officials have cited a 1991 stolen vehicle and 2005 retail theft charges as grounds for deportation. He and his attorneys declined to discuss the details since his immigration case is pending.
He was brought to the country from Mexico as a child and got a green card in 1991 after his father was granted amnesty.
NIJC said their other cases include immigrants with medical conditions like HIV, kidney problems and respiratory issues.
Johannes Favi, 32, was released in April and reunited with his family in Indiana after being detained for nearly a year in northeastern Illinois.
Favi, who overstayed a 2013 visitor visa from Benin, was in the process of applying for a green card sponsored by his U.S. citizen wife. But in June, while at a courthouse for a hearing related to a 2015 financial crime he pleaded guilty to, immigration agents took him into custody.
Favi felt particularly at risk for the virus. He struggles with respiratory issues, including diminished lung capacity, after severe pneumonia left him hospitalized for months in 2007.
He said no detainees were provided masks or hand sanitizer. Soap was limited, though temperature checks were later administered randomly at the Kankakee County facility about 60 miles (nearly 97 kilometers) from Chicago.
While detained, Favi missed the birth of his second child and the chance to perform prayers and blessings over the newborn, a family tradition. That made seeing his son for the first time bittersweet.
“I feel that I kind of failed him,” Favi said. “I was happy and sad at the same time.”