On Wednesday, a 27-year-old Honduran man reportedly killed himself while jailed at Karnes County Residential Center, an immigrant detention center in Texas.
It is not clear that the man’s death was related to the coronavirus. But unless the Trump administration releases people from immigrant detention during the pandemic, activists and legal groups warn, the nearly 40,000 immigrants in government custody could face serious mental health issues in addition to physical illness.
“The mental health impact on people who are imprisoned for the crime of seeking a safe haven is overwhelming,” Lucia Allain, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, said in a statement.
“The added stress of the coronavirus potentially getting inside the center is deadly. We anticipate that this won’t be the last death at Karnes unless ICE immediately releases all those detained at this detention center and in custody around the country.”
RAICES has not yet released details about which family members the Honduran man was detained with or how long he had been held in the detention center. BuzzFeed reported that the 27-year-old crossed the border as part of a “family unit” on Feb. 19. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
But the man’s suicide highlights problems with medical care, including mental health treatment, at immigration detention facilities, which advocates say could be exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak.
“A dirty and cramped detention center in the face of a pandemic is unsafe and inhumane,” said Allain.
Immigrants at Karnes are panicked about a potential coronavirus outbreak, which is taking a big toll on their mental health, said Andrea Meza, the director of family detention services at RAICES. “They are scared and worried and feel trapped,” she told HuffPost. “They feel like sitting ducks.”
One man detained at Karnes said his wife has been unable to get medical care for her ovarian cysts and that “I fear for our lives if the virus reaches us and we are stuck here,” according to a declaration taken by RAICES staff.
So far, four immigrants in ICE custody have been tested for the coronavirus, and one employee at a detention center in New Jersey was tested and went into self-quarantine. On Tuesday, the agency said 10 more detained immigrants may have been exposed to COVID-19, but ICE has not yet confirmed any cases in its facilities and did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for an update on these results.
On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit demanding ICE release its most vulnerable detainees at the immigrant detention facility in Tacoma, Washington, including immigrants who suffer from lung disease, autoimmune disorders and asthma. The agency has the discretion to release any asylum-seekers who are not a risk to the community on parole or bond while they wait for their court dates.
ICE has said it’s working to stave off a possible outbreak by suspending visits to detention centers ― which makes people all the more isolated from their friends, families and legal aid ― and noted it would use funding from Congress to set up quarantine facilities.
But it’s not administering proper care to people inside, according to advocates. An immigrant told RAICES that hand sanitizer and masks aren’t available inside the Karnes detention center and that “officials have not said anything to us about what is happening outside, or any extra precautions that we should take.”
Meza says immigrants at Karnes aren’t being tested for the coronavirus, despite the fact that she and other staff members have spoken to many people who are coughing and have respiratory illnesses, and who say their babies are sick as well.
“It’s only a matter of time until there’s a positive test result within the detention center,” she said as part of a RAICES panel on Wednesday, adding that the closest major hospital is over an hour away.
A dirty and cramped detention center in the face of a pandemic is unsafe and inhumane. Lucia Allain, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services
Detention centers and border stations are notorious for subpar medical care. The Honduran man is the ninth immigrant to die in ICE custody since October, and last year, six immigrant children died in U.S. custody.
Karnes detention center, where the Honduran man was incarcerated, is one of three facilities in the U.S. where immigrant families are held together. Meza said people’s medical needs are routinely ignored there. HuffPost has reported on immigrants with brain tumors, cancer and psychiatric issues who have been denied proper treatment at the facility.
There are currently 700 people being held at Karnes, and immigrants have told RAICES that they lack access to supplies for basic hygiene and that soap is in short supply. Medical experts say a coronavirus outbreak in these facilities would be disastrous, since people live in close quarters, have compromised immune systems, and are not receiving quality medical care.
“I am worried about additional preventable deaths that could occur,” said Dr. Altaf Saadi, a neurologist and an asylum evaluator for the Physicians for Human Rights Asylum Network. Saadi said it’s impossible for immigrants who are confined in small spaces with inadequate supplies that would allow them to follow government guidelines to prevent the spread of the COVID-19.
Since Iran temporarily released prisoners during the coronavirus outbreak and Britain is considering doing the same, the Trump administration should free detained immigrants, most of whom are not even facing criminal charges, according to RAICES.
“How many more parents are we going to be losing because of this broken system?” said Allain. “The system is literally killing parents who are coming here for a better opportunity.”