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Migrants say COVID-19 fears led to disturbance in Texas immigration detention center

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Migrants wait at an immigration processing facility in Texas. Eric Gay via AP POOL

This article is co-published with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

The fright and anxiety over the spread of COVID-19 in Texas breached the walls of an immigration detention center this week and led to what immigration attorneys, detainees and their family members described as a disturbance inside the complex that officers in the facility met with pepper spray.

They said the incident happened Monday after detainees in the South Texas Processing Center in Pearsall raised concerns about the lack of screening measures for new arrivals to the complex, which is operated by the Florida-based GEO Group under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Everyone is panicking,” an asylum seeker who has been detained at the facility for about three months said in a phone interview. “We don’t have anything. We don’t have disinfectants; they are not taking any precautions.”

The woman said detainees are using water to try to keep their area clean. “If one of us gets sick, all of us will die in here,” she said. (The Texas Tribune and ProPublica are not publishing the names of detainees because they fear retaliation.)

The woman, who described being in a holding room with about 100 others who must share four bathrooms, said the detainees fear being infected by the facility's staff and other detainees, adding that when a new group of immigrants arrived from Piedras Negras, the Mexican city that borders Eagle Pass, they were not thoroughly checked for symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

“They only took their temperature, but without asking them anything [about their health],” she said.

The fear of infection is what led some of the detainees who serve as cafeteria and janitorial staff at the facility to go on strike, the detainees said. An ICE official said there was no strike. But ICE confirmed the disturbance, saying that roughly 60 detainees staged an "impromptu protest" and demanded to be released.

Staff ordered detainees to return to their beds, but they refused, the spokesperson said.

“The detainees told facility staff they would continue their protest until they were released from custody; however, those actions compromised security protocols at the facility. After detainees refused to comply with numerous commands given by contract staff, the contract staff initiated an immediate ‘use of force’ by disbursing oleoresin capsicum, commonly referred to as OC Spray.”

There were no serious injuries reported, the spokeswoman said, adding that “ICE identified approximately nine detainees as instigators that incited this disturbance. All nine are now in restricted housing pending disciplinary charges due to security violations.”

ICE says no detainees in its Texas facilities have tested positive for COVID-19. An employee at an ICE detention facility in Conroe, near Houston, tested positive for the virus earlier this month.

According to ICE’s guidance, new detainees who arrive at facilities are screened and isolated if they present fever and/or respiratory symptoms. The staff is also consulting with local health departments to determine whether there’s a need for testing.

Austin-based attorney Chito Vela, who represents four detainees inside the facility, said he spoke with one client’s daughter Tuesday who said her father had the same concerns about possible exposure to the coronavirus.

“He said they were upset because people from outside the detention centers are being let in without being screened,” he said. “That’s what the whole hullabaloo was about.”

A family member of one of the detained migrants told staff at Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based advocacy group, that her relative said detainees began requesting medical treatment after learning some of the symptoms of the virus.

“There were new detainees going in so they all started to watch the news and became aware of the COVID-19 symptoms … and caused panic,” the family member said, according to a text message exchange shared by Grassroots Leadership.

“We are really terrified for all the people who remain locked up in ICE detention,” said Bethany Carson, an immigration researcher and organizer with Grassroots Leadership. “It is absolutely impossible to follow health protocols such as social distancing in a detention center.”