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Kathy Kunkel, secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health, outside her home in New Mexico. Credit: Ted Alcorn for Reveal

Over the summer, our immigration team was busy sending records requests to state and county health departments across the country. We wanted to know how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials were confronting the spread of COVID-19 in their facilities. 

We had filed requests with ICE, too, but we knew that could be a long and difficult process. We figured we might have a better chance getting documents if we went straight to the local agencies with which ICE might be interacting. 

In late June, the New Mexico Department of Health responded to our records request with dozens of email communications between the agency and the wardens and health service administrators at ICE’s three facilities in the state. As my colleague Patrick Michels and I sifted through the emails, we soon realized that they told a compelling behind-the-scenes story. 

New Mexico’s top health officials clearly were frustrated with the response from ICE and its contractors. The federal agency wasn’t testing detainees exposed to the virus, failed to secure its own test kits and continued transferring detainees despite warnings from New Mexico health staff that such movement could spread the virus.

In early May, Kathy Kunkel, secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health, received an email from an immigrant rights advocate about the “alarming situation” at the Otero County Processing Center, where detainees went without cleaning supplies to disinfect their dorms and their bedsheets hadn’t been washed in a month.

Kunkel quickly wrote two messages to her staff from her iPhone. In one, she asked a staff member to call and get more information. In the other, she decided to go higher up the chain at ICE. She emailed Department of Homeland Security senior medical officer Dr. Alexander L. Eastman: “Can you help me in this? We sent 500 tests. They don’t answer calls.”

Eastman had previously told her that it was “iffy” whether he had authority to step in because Otero, near El Paso, Texas, is run by private prison operator Management and Training Corp. After reading her latest note, he changed his tune. 

“Have escalated to ICE top leadership. Will circle back.”

Still, Kunkel told us in an interview last month, Eastman had told her that the response “was not going to be very strong.” Otero has since become one of the ICE facilities hardest hit by COVID-19, with 150 detainees testing positive since the start of the pandemic.

“We wanted to respond quickly and provide support as time went on. We needed their cooperation to do it more effectively and to cooperate with us,” Kunkel told us. “That, unfortunately, didn't always happen.”

ICE disputed the version of events chronicled in the emails. In a statement, an agency spokesperson said medical personnel at Otero “maintained open lines of communication” with the health department.

But New Mexico officials disagree. In June, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asked Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero to establish communication with ICE. The agency at first appeared cooperative. But when Tafoya Lucero asked ICE to provide test kits and stop transfers, officials went silent.

“My concern is,” Tafoya Lucero told us, “are they endangering people?”

ICE’s failure to comprehensively test and continued practice of transfers isn’t limited to New Mexico. Immigration Centers of America, which runs a detention center in Farmville, Virginia, initially turned down the state’s offer to help with testing. The facility has now experienced the worst outbreak of any ICE detention center in the country, with 339 detainees testing positive so far. At the Mesa Verde ICE detention center in Bakersfield, California, emails disclosed in a court case suggest that ICE rejected a medical contractor’s plan to test all its detainees because the agency wouldn’t have room to isolate everyone who tested positive.

Read our story here, and please share it. We’ll keep you updated as we get more responses from other states.


OUR NEW DATA VISUALIZATION: WHERE ICE REPORTS COVID-19 CASES

As I’ve mentioned here in the last few months, ICE has been publishing statistics on coronavirus cases in its detention centers since late March. The numbers offer a glimpse into how the virus is spreading within ICE’s network of nearly 200 detention centers.

But the agency’s COVID-19 webpage also has serious limitations. For one thing, it doesn’t track how case totals change over time. And while ICE reports how many total tests it has administered, it doesn’t report how many tests it has given at individual facilities.

Along with our New Mexico reporting, Patrick partnered with data reporter Mohamed Al Elew to analyze snapshots of ICE’s data, which were compiled by researchers at the Vera Institute of Justice. The social justice advocacy nonprofit recently modeled the behavior of COVID-19 on the ICE detention system and found the true case total “may be up to 15 times higher than the figures reported by ICE as of mid-May.”

Our new data visualization illustrates how COVID-19 reports within ICE detention have changed over time.

See it here. 
 


JUDGE ORDERS GOVERNMENT TO STOP HOLDING CHILDREN IN HOTELS

The judge overseeing the landmark Flores case that has protected the rights of immigrant children for two decades has ordered an end to the government’s controversial practice of holding children in hotel rooms before returning them to their home countries. 

In July, the Associated Press learned that children as young as 1 were being held in hotels in Arizona and Texas under the supervision of adults not trained in child care. Under the Flores settlement agreement, migrant children are supposed to be sent to government shelters and eventually placed in the care of a family member or other suitable sponsor. But the Trump administration has been completely circumventing this process.

Early on in the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order that allows the government to rapidly “expel” people – including children – rather than keep them in U.S. custody, where they may appear before an immigration judge. Since then, the practice became widespread, The New York Times reported last month, with about 900 migrants, most of them minors, detained in hotels across San Diego; Phoenix; McAllen, Texas; El Paso, Texas; Miami; Los Angeles; and Seattle.

On Aug. 14, attorneys representing the children challenged this practice in the Flores case, arguing that it violates the spirit of the settlement agreement, which requires that children be placed in facilities licensed in residential child care. In her Sept. 4 ruling, Judge Dolly Gee also noted that the children’s ability to access legal services, a Flores requirement, while held in hotels is "woefully inadequate."

"Defendants cannot seriously argue in good faith that flouting their contractual obligation to place minors in licensed programs is necessary to mitigate the spread of COVID-19," she wrote in her order.

Read Gee’s ruling here.
 


 

3 THINGS WE’RE READING

1. Farmworkers appear to be among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis, with at least 6,700 testing positive since the start of the pandemic. (Politico)

An analysis by Politico found that counties with the highest production of crops in the U.S. are among areas with the highest per-capita rates of infection. But the Trump administration has failed to implement federal safety requirements that would protect farmworkers from the virus, and only eight states have “some form of mandated protections for farmworkers including access to testing, hand-washing stations, social distancing and education.”  

The kicker: The pandemic’s impact on farmworkers underscores how a worst-case scenario can develop when an essential but extremely vulnerable workforce is ignored. The Trump administration has repeatedly declined to impose mandatory safety requirements for agricultural workplaces. No federal assistance has been designated to help farmers obtain personal protective gear for their laborers, like it has for other essential workers like nurses and police officers. The Trump administration has largely left state and local governments to fend for themselves in addressing coronavirus. Yet critics say that state officials have also failed to adequately confront the virus.

2. A federal judge ordered the Trump administration to provide mental health services to separated migrant families. Only 200 have accepted help. (Miami Herald)

In the wake of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown that separated thousands of children from their parents at the border in 2018, attorneys representing the families filed a federal lawsuit that sought to require the government to provide mental health services to these families. Judge John A. Kronstadt sided with the attorneys and ordered the government in November to provide services to the families. But nearly a year since the ruling, only 200 out of roughly 2,300 parents and children have begun treatment. Seneca Family of Agencies, the nonprofit connecting families to services, said the stigma of mental health, combined with the COVID-19 crisis and challenges of locating class members, has hampered its efforts to help families. 

The kicker: The nightmares and flashbacks are still there. Before bed, the migrant mother of two triple-checks that the doors and windows in her home are locked as painful memories make their nightly rounds: It was around 1 a.m., Maria recounted in a phone interview from her Orlando home. She and her 5-year-old daughter were sleeping side by side in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection jail cell days after the two had journeyed from El Salvador and illegally crossed the Texas border. “They woke her up and just took her – snatched her,” Maria said of the 2018 incident when Customs agents took her daughter. “I never saw her again until two months later.” She paused to hold back tears: “You just can’t erase them, the memories. I always worry that my kids will be taken in the middle of the night.”

3. The youngest person to die from COVID-19 in Florida is a 6-year-old Honduran girl who had recently sought asylum with her mother at the U.S. border. (Tampa Bay Times)

A year ago, 6-year-old Astrid and her mother fled their native Honduras, sought refuge at the U.S. border and settled in the Tampa Bay area in Florida. She was looking forward to starting the first grade. But on the morning of Aug. 16, Astrid had a seizure and died a few days later at a local hospital. The medical examiner later would confirm she was positive for COVID-19. “It’s very difficult to believe that she is no longer with us,” said her mother, Suny Galindo. 

The kicker: Galindo said it is hard to believe that her daughter was infected with COVID-19. She said Astrid was healthy the whole week until the emergency. She had no temperature, skin rash or other symptoms related to COVID-19. But Astrid tested positive, according to the summary of an investigative report from the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office. The report indicates Astrid suffered a bilateral pulmonary edema and two internal hemorrhages. She would have turned 7 (this month).
 


Your tips have been vital to our immigration coverage. Keep them coming: border@revealnews.org

– Laura C. Morel

 

 

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