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'Many More Will Die': First Known Death From Covid-19 of Immigrant in ICE Custody Bolsters Release Calls

"This is a terrible tragedy, and it was entirely predictable and preventable."

Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego

California public health officials said a 57-year-old immigrant who was held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego died Wednesday from complications of Covid-19. (Photo: CoreCivic)

A 57-year-old immigrant in the custody of the U.S. government died Wednesday from complications related to Covid-19, bolstering demands from human rights activists and experts that the Trump administration immediately overhaul its detention policies given health concerns related to the ongoing pandemic.

"This tragic news is even more evidence that failing to act will result in cruel and needless death."
—Monika Y. Langarica, ACLU

This is first known coronavirus-related death of a detained immigrant in the country. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) did not respond to reporters' requests for comment, but Craig Sturak of the San Diego County Health & Human Services Agency confirmed the death of a man who had been hospitalized since late April.

The Associated Press reported that a family representative identified the deceased man as Carlos Ernesto Escobar, who came to the United States from El Salvador with relatives in 1980 and lived in the Los Angeles area. Since January, Escobar had been held at Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, an ICE facility run by the private company CoreCivic Inc.

Monika Y. Langarica, immigrants' rights staff attorney at the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, noted in a statement Wednesday that her organization "filed a lawsuit demanding the immediate release of medically vulnerable people from Otay Mesa weeks ago, urging that release under these circumstances is a matter of life and death."

"Today one of those people has died because ICE refused to release him when he still had a chance to survive this deadly virus," Langarica said. "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."

According to the AP:

Otay Mesa has been a hotbed for the spread of Covid-19, with nearly one of five detainees who have tested positive nationwide. As of Wednesday, 132 of ICE's 705 positive cases were at the San Diego facility. Additionally, 10 of 39 ICE detention employees who have tested positive are at Otay Mesa.

Two guards at an immigration detention center in Monroe, Louisiana, died late last month from the coronavirus—Carl Lenard, 62, and Stanton Johnson, 51. Until Wednesday, no detainees had been reported dead.

Although Escobar's death was somewhat expected, considering his condition in recent days, the case has given weight to recent warnings from across the globe that all detention facilities—from those which temporarily hold immigrants to jails and prisons—are putting both detainees and facility staff at unnecessarily heightened risk for contracting and spreading the highly contagious infectious disease.

Rupert Colville, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement Tuesday that "conditions in many prisons in the Americas region are deeply worrying. Pre-existing structural problems, such as chronic overcrowding and unhygienic conditions, coupled with the lack of proper access to healthcare have enabled the rapid spread of Covid-19 in many facilities."

In late April, Felipe González Morales, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, called on the Trump administration to significantly reduce the number of immigrants held in "overcrowded and unsanitary administrative centers" during the pandemic and release them into alternative settings, noting that detainees "are simply awaiting decisions on their immigration claims."

Earlier in April, a report from Amnesty International declared that "detaining anyone solely for migration-related reasons during a global pandemic is cruel, reckless, and deadly." Denise Bell, an Amnesty researcher for refugee and migrant rights, echoed that sentiment in a statement Wednesday, calling Escobar's death "the result of a continued dehumanization of people by Immigration and Customs Enforcement."

"Coupled with a pandemic, these unchanging behaviors result in tragic deaths that could have been prevented," Bell said. "Families, community neighbors, and activists have been calling for the release of all people from immigration detention, but this administration has continuously refused to listen and respect the very basic dignity and humanity of people. Every day that people are unnecessarily detained based solely on their immigration status is a day that needlessly and cruelly threatens public safety and health."

The Trump administration was widely condemned for its immigration policies even before the coronavirus outbreak began late last year. A report released last week by the national ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and the National Immigrant Justice Center detailed how immigration detention has grown since President Donald Trump took office and "the poor conditions and inadequate medical care" in ICE facilities.

Following reports of Escobar's death, Andrea Flores, deputy director of immigration policy at the ACLU, said that "this is a terrible tragedy, and it was entirely predictable and preventable. For months, public health experts and corrections officials have warned that detention centers would be Petri dishes for the spread of Covid-19—and a death trap for thousands of people in civil detention."

"Unless ICE acts quickly to release far more people from detention, they will keep getting sick and many more will die," Flores warned. "Since the Trump administration began, 40 people have died in ICE detention. The administration's obsession with incarcerating people was dangerous before Covid-19, and now it is a death sentence."

"This tragedy is the result of this administration's vile and racist response to the pandemic that should alarm and activate every American."
—Laura Rivera, SPLC

Laura Rivera, director of the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), concurred in a statement Wednesday, warning that "our window to avoid total calamity and more loss of life is quickly dwindling."

Escobar's "senseless death should weigh heavily on the conscience of those who took him into custody and knowingly exposed him to fatal danger inside a place that doctors and public health experts have compared to a 'death trap,'" she said. "This tragedy is the result of this administration's vile and racist response to the pandemic that should alarm and activate every American."

More broadly, Rivera denounced the tens of thousands of "needless" detentions for civil immigration matters that underscore the country's "cruel immigration system rooted in racism and xenophobia." She called for the urgent release of "every last person who remains caged by this merciless agency," referring to ICE.

"This individual was not the first to perish in ICE detention, and unless we swiftly correct course, they will be far from the last," she added. "We must free them all now."

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