Advocates request emergency action from OIG at Port Isabel Detention Center

3 years 8 months 1 week ago Wednesday, June 10 2020 Jun 10, 2020 June 10, 2020 2:23 PM June 10, 2020 in News - Coronavirus Pandemic

A complaint to the Office of Inspector General was filed Tuesday calling for emergency action at the Port Isabel Detention Center.

Advocates for a man in federal custody at Port Isabel Detention Center, PIDC, are concerned for his welfare and the conditions that could adversely affect other detainees.

"I am not a criminal. I am not a rule-breaker. I am a pastor, for crying out loud," a Ugandan pastor and asylum seeker identified only by his first name, Steven, said via phone interview on Tuesday. "I've been doing the ministry at this detention center preaching the gospel to the men."

Steven, 36, has orders for removal from the United States. He arrived at a port of entry in Brownsville seeking asylum in December 2018. He fled his prosecution from the government after organizing a human rights program, according to Steven's attorneys.

He has been detained at PIDC for a year and half. He has diabetes, but his attorneys say he's had insufficient treatment. "My right eye has severe cataracts. It developed when I was in this detention center," Steven said. Attorneys say he's also developed painful and recurring boils. They're concerned conditions could help propagate the virus among detainees physically vulnerable. 

So far, there are 22 cases of COVID-19 reported at the detention center. 

ICE detention facilities must keep track of vulnerable detainees who have diabetes or other ailments listed on the Pandemic Response Requirements Guidelines. 

The agency has made changes to their policies since the pandemic, even taking actions to reduce their population at facilities. According to a statement from the agency, "ICE has released over 900 individuals after evaluating their immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk, and national security concerns." 

The complaint filed with the OIG by attorney Jennifer Harbury mentions a lack of personal protective equipment among employees. The agency's website assures they have the equipment available for staff and patients, but the agency itself has not issued a specific statement for PIDC.

"For a short time, there was some of the guards were wearing masks. Some, not all, not nearly at all. They were still not wearing masks going in and out of the dorms, or the pods. Food workers not wearing masks," Catherine Potter, attorney for Steven, said. 

Potter has other clients at PIDC who are concerned about those who remain untested in the facility.

"One of my clients out there who is highly vulnerable, he said many in his dorm have been coughing he's been coughing throughout his whole dorm, coughing and sneezing. And they keep telling him them it's flu. And, then he reported yesterday he can't smell or taste anything. It's part of the same thing, but they won't test him," Potter said.

On Tuesday, Steven realized he also lost his sense of smell, even though his nose was not congested.

More than just a test, Steven wants ICE to consider him to be released to a sponsor who is already waiting to take him in. 

"I have a family that would not like to see me dead, because I came to the U.S.A. to seek asylum. The reason why I'm here, I ran out to save my life. I ran out of my country to save my life, and anything they can do to help me attain my goal of saving my life I would really appreciate it. I am willing to get out under any conditions they may have for me and I will obey them," Steven said.

Steven's case is at the Fifth Circuit on a petition for review, and there is a pending motion to reopen and reconsider for changed circumstances at the Board of Immigration Appeals. "The changed circumstances -- the authorities  in Uganda found out he had been denied asylum by the immigration judge. Shortly, thereafter, security forces went to his sister's home and beat her severely, because they were convinced he had returned and she was hiding him. She was badly injured and is now in hiding," Potter said.

Though the complaint urges oversight at a federally licensed facility, advocates believe it will benefit the community outside of it, too.

"Those guards and other employees at PIDC, they leave work and return to the community, to their families. They have not been wearing protective equipment and they have been exposed. I care about the detainees, but if you don't care about them, you should certainly care about your community, your family and neighbors. So, people do need to know, to get honest and real information about what is happening at the ICE detention centers," said Potter.

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