Joesmith had night terrors inside his ICE holding cell as he struggled to breathe for hours.
The 25-year-old Haitian asylum-seeker was diagnosed with asthma in 2015 and was able to control it with medication — but after entering ICE’s Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, New Mexico, Joesmith’s condition worsened as he struggled to breathe throughout the day. , and when he tried to sleep it was always difficult. The fear of catching COVID in the cramped quarters of the detention center didn’t help.
Joesmith said he felt “suffocated” and said he could “die here.”
ICE detainees like Joesmith, who are at risk of serious side effects from contracting COVID-19 due to pre-existing medical conditions, could be released under a federal court order issued in 2020. Amid soaring COVID rates, a judge at the time ordered officials to identify all ICE detainees at high risk of serious illness and death and strongly consider releasing them unless they pose a danger to property or people.
On October 7, 2020, US District Judge Jesus Bernal said in a court filing in the case that “only in rare circumstances” will ICE fail to release at-risk immigrants who are not subject to mandatory detention.
Hundreds of migrants have been released from there. But as the pandemic progresses, advocates and advocates say immigrants like Josemit have fallen through the cracks. Advocates have had to pressure ICE to release some medically vulnerable people, but that’s not a solution for detainees who don’t have access to legal representation, advocates said.
Early in his stay, Joesmith, who agreed to be identified for this story only by his first name, said he made more than a dozen requests to see a doctor about his asthma, but they were ignored. He was finally able to see a doctor in early February after collapsing from lack of oxygen. Medical staff at the Cibola County Correctional Center, acting for ICE from the private prison company CoreCivic, said Joesmith had high blood pressure. He was given medicine and told to see the doctor again in the morning, but that never happened. On Feb. 7, three days after he collapsed, he was given an inhaler to treat his asthma, ICE said.
His attorney, Zoe Bowman of the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said despite his medical condition, ICE refused to release him under a court order.
What may have contributed to Joesmith’s fight for release is that he did not initially tell immigration officials that he had asthma. Bowman, Joesmith later tried to tell the medical staff that requests to see a doctor were all ignored. In an effort to free Joesmith, Bowman submitted a copy of his asthma diagnosis from Haiti and a certified translation.
“Having asthma was a clear and direct reason for his discharge,” Bowman said.
Bowman noted that ICE had to send multiple emails and make phone calls to urge the release of immigrants with high-risk medical conditions who had been in detention for months.
“It doesn’t feel like ICE is following orders,” he said. “There are very few pro bono attorneys serving thousands of ICE beds, and it feels like we’re dealing with these cases only by accident.”
When Bowman asked ICE about the multiple medical requests submitted by JoeSmith, the agency said it had not received any since November.
“It seems like this weird situation where the official records don’t match what’s going on inside the detention center,” he said. “The lack of medical care leads to some horrible situations for people who are detained for months and months.”
Joesmith was released from the Cibola County Correctional Center on Feb. 16 after the agency received an inquiry about his condition from BuzzFeed News.
In a statement, an ICE official said Joesmith was given an albuterol inhaler on February 7 and released on February 16. ICE said they were released as an alternative to detention program, which uses technology and case management to track outbound immigrants. detention
“ICE continues to evaluate individuals based on CDC’s guidance for people at high risk for severe illness as a result of COVID-19 to determine whether continued detention is appropriate,” the immigration enforcement agency said.
ICE said Joesmith was removed by an immigration judge, but filed an appeal pending Jan. 14.
Matthew Davio, a spokesman for Corecivic, said in a statement that the company cares deeply about each person in their care. All of their immigration facilities are closely monitored by ICE and undergo regular reviews, he said.
Cibola County Correctional Center’s health services team follows CoreCivic’s standards for medical care and ICE’s performance-based national detention standards, Davio said.
Corecivic, Davio said, has no role or influence on the release process for medically vulnerable immigrants due to COVID-19.
“Our staff is trained and held to the highest ethical standards. Our commitment to keeping those entrusted to our care safe and secure is our top priority,” Davio said. “We strongly deny any allegations of ill-treatment of detainees.”
The Cibola County Correctional Center has been criticized for years for its lack of medical care for immigrants housed there.
In 2020, Reuters found hundreds of unanswered requests for medical attention at ICE’s only dedicated detention unit for transgender immigrants housed at the Cibola County Correctional Center. The report found that quarantine procedures were poorly enforced and detainees with mental disorders and chronic illnesses received deficient treatment. These issues led to the temporary closure and transfer of transgender women to other ICE facilities.
A secret memo sent by a top Department of Homeland Security official to ICE leadership, obtained by BuzzFeed News, revealed how immigrants at the Cibola County Correctional Center sometimes waited up to 17 days for urgently needed medical care, exposed to poor sanitation and quarantine practices. Outbreaks of chickenpox and mumps, and medicines for diseases such as diabetes, epilepsy and tuberculosis were not obtained as prescribed by doctors.
ICE’s Cibola County facility has had 44 confirmed cases of COVID since testing began in 2020. The total number of infections rose from 25 in mid-January to 44 on February 1. The average daily population for the facility has been about 83 since November.
However, the UCLA School of Law’s COVID Behind Bars Data Project, which tracks infections among detainees across the US, said the actual number was higher than ICE reported because testing was limited.
“Any number that ICE reports is an undercount because they’re not testing widely,” said Joshua Manson, a spokesman for the UCLA project, which noted several unexplained fluctuations in the cumulative number of COVID cases and tests that ICE reports.
The project was given an F grade by ICE on its “Data Reporting and Quality” scorecard.
Since ICE began testing for the virus, 40,358 cases have been confirmed across all detention facilities, according to the agency’s own numbers. There were 1,001 active cases as of Monday.
Fritzner, another Haitian asylum-seeker who declined to give his full name because he did not want to jeopardize his pending case, said he struggled to get medical care in ICE custody when he tried to be released.
In 2015, the 32-year-old lost his right eye to a stabbing in Haiti after participating in a protest against a local politician. He said that the politician sent the men who attacked him. Frieszner moved to other parts of the island nation, but he was always threatened by the bandits who controlled much of Haiti. After being attacked again in 2017 by armed men inside his home, he left Haiti.
Fritzner tried to live in Chile, but said racism and the lack of immigration status made it difficult for black immigrants. He said a group of men once beat and robbed him in the street while making racist comments. So, like thousands of other Haitians in South America, Fritzner made the treacherous journey to the US-Mexico border last summer. Along the way, they crossed 10 countries and passed through the Darien Gap jungle, a route that Unicef calls one of the world’s most dangerous, where Frieszner said he saw dead bodies as he made his way north.
Eventually, Fritzner joined the thousands of Haitians who crossed the border into Del Rio, Texas for refuge, waiting for days in squalid conditions under the bridge. After being processed and taken into ICE custody in September 2021, Fristzner said he began to worry that the area around his eye was infected. To make matters worse, he experienced a severe decrease in overall vision from his left eye and was worried that he would lose his ability to see completely.
While in ICE custody, Fristzner was unable to read his Bible, make phone calls or perform other basic tasks without assistance due to his vision loss. Bowman, who took him on as a client, said ICE initially refused to release him because it said he was a threat to public safety, despite having no criminal record and no immigration history in the US.
Fritzner submitted at least 15 requests to see a doctor to no avail. Meanwhile, his eyesight worsened every day and he became more and more worried.
“I only have one eye,” said Fristzner. “How can I live if I can’t see it?”
He believes his eye is infected from the days he spent under the bridge in Del Rio. He tried calling the Los Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso for pro bono representation — but, like most organizations that work with immigrants, it’s overwhelmed and people who want help can’t get it. Still, Fritzner continued to leave messages.
“One time I called at night when everyone was sleeping and I prayed to God to please help me,” he said. “The next morning, an officer said I had a legal visit from him.”
Bowman was eventually able to pressure ICE and release him, but only after the agency made inquiries from reporters and members of Congress. Fritzner now lives with her sister in Indiana.
He was later diagnosed with glaucoma, a condition that usually leads to slow vision loss because the nerve that connects the eye to the brain is damaged. Still, he hopes to go to school one day and looks forward to completing his asylum case.
“I’m with my family now and doing a lot better,” he said. “But I keep thinking about my friends in detention who can’t get over their illness. I think about them because I know they are suffering so much.