HOUSTON – A detained immigrant who said he tested positive for COVID-19 was required to call in for a court hearing even after a guard said he was too weak to talk, his attorney said.
When the judge asked Salomon Diego Alonzo to say his name Thursday, the guard responded that Alonzo “does not have the lung capacity,” according to his lawyer, Veronica Semino, who was listening by phone. The call lasted about two hours, though Judge Mary Baumgarten eventually agreed to delay Alonzo's final asylum hearing, the attorney said.
Alonzo was hospitalized later that day, Semino said, and by Friday, she had not received an update on his condition. The jail where he was detained went from two confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Thursday to 20 by Friday night.
Speaking to The Associated Press on Wednesday, the 26-year-old from Guatemala responded to most questions with one- or two-sentence answers, often interrupted by coughing. Alonzo says he has headaches, diarrhea and severe exhaustion that made it difficult for him to get out of bed. He's confined with one other person in a dorm at an immigration detention center in rural Louisiana, where medical staff check his vital signs twice a day.
“I can barely walk,” Alonzo said. “I'm not safe here.”
His case provides new insight into how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is dealing with a steadily rising number of coronavirus cases among its roughly 32,000 detainees. ICE said Thursday that 100 detainees are confirmed to have COVID-19.
Public health experts have warned that the virus could do particular harm in U.S. jails and prisons because there's little space for social distancing. Immigration detainees in several states have pleaded for masks and expressed fear of getting the virus, which causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people but can cause more severe illness for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems.
To combat the pandemic, ICE has released about 700 detainees so far, primarily people with known medical conditions. But it has resisted large-scale releases of detainees. Alonzo's requests to be freed have been denied, said Semino, his attorney.
Alonzo said officials at Richwood Correctional Center in Monroe, Louisiana, where he's held, have told him that he tested positive for COVID-19. ICE would not confirm that to Semino, and spokesman Bryan Cox declined to comment.
Semino says Alonzo was one of nearly 700 people arrested in ICE raids last year on chicken plants in Mississippi, the largest immigration worksite enforcement operation in at least a decade. He has been in the U.S. since 2012, living in an apartment in a small Mississippi town with his wife, teenage brother and daughter, now 8.
Alonzo doesn't remember being around anyone who looked ill before he started to feel sick himself. He thinks he could have been exposed to the coronavirus in the jail yard, cafeteria or dormitory where he and dozens of others sleep.
Alonzo said he started feeling “very tired” on April 8, describing it as a pain in his bones. The next morning, he went to the nurse. He was found to have a fever, taken to a solitary confinement cell and given medicine to reduce his temperature.
After a few days, someone came to administer a test, he said. Jail officials told him this week that he had the virus and took him to a dormitory with one other person, a man from South Asia who Alonzo believed was also sick.
On Friday, with Alonzo hospitalized, nearly two dozen other detainees were confined to the same dorm. ICE posted on its website that it had 20 confirmed coronavirus cases at Richwood and 124 cases nationally.
Richwood started to detain immigrants last year as part of a broader trend among rural Louisiana prisons. A Cuban man killed himself last year in a Richwood solitary confinement cell, and an Associated Press investigation found jail guards had not checked on him as federal standards require and disregarded warning signs before his death.
On Thursday, Alonzo was scheduled for what's known as a “merits” hearing, typically an hourslong presentation to explain why he should get asylum. Semino, his attorney, said she requested Tuesday that the hearing be delayed and followed up with the court the next day. Only at the end of the hearing did the judge postpone until April 26.
“For somebody who is potentially dying to have to sit there for two hours, it’s really cruel and inhumane," Semino said.
A staff member for the judge referred questions to the media relations office for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees U.S. immigration courts. A spokeswoman said she could not comment on Alonzo’s medical status.
Amid the pandemic, the office has postponed all hearings for immigrants not in detention but is holding many hearings for detainees.