Alma Rosa Perez-Aguirre cried all the way back to Longmont from the Sterling Correctional Facility. She had left Boulder County around 5 a.m. on May 15 with her daughter and niece, driving more than 120 miles to pick up her brother Oscar Perez-Aguirre upon his release. Oscar had called Alma the day before, elated. At 57 years old, with hypertension and an enlarged heart, he was eligible for release due to a higher risk of severe illness associated with COVID-19, he told her. He had tested negative and was told he would be let go the following morning. He had been given all the paperwork and everything, he said.
“We drove all the way to Sterling and missed a day of work,” Alma tells Boulder Weekly through an interpreter more than a week later. “We were so excited to be able to pick him up and to see him.”
As they waited with other families by a big red sign in the parking lot, several men were released, but Oscar wasn’t one of them. A little while later, Alma says, a guard came over and said: “Oscar’s not going to be released to you all; Immigration took him into custody.”
She felt helpless. The tears on the way home were part frustration at her own impotence.
It wasn’t until sometime later that day or the next — it’s all sort of a blur to Alma — that she finally heard from Oscar. He was being held in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contract facility in Aurora, operated by the private prison corporation GEO Group, Inc. What’s more, he was in a medical unit, he told his sister. He had been transferred with a fever, he said. The obvious concern was that somewhere along the way he had been exposed to the coronavirus. Alma talked to him again on Sunday night, and became even more worried.
“My concern is really for his health,” Alma says, “and that was the reason we contracted a lawyer was to make sure that he didn’t die, to make sure that he didn’t fall through the cracks.”
For several days, immigration lawyer Henry Hollithron says he was unable to get any information from ICE or GEO about Oscar, let alone speak to his client. As late as Wednesday, May 20, he was told Oscar was still being held in medical quarantine at the facility.
“It has been very frustrating to try to communicate with them to have this complete denial of access to counsel so that we could know what was going on,” Hollithron says.
On Thursday, May 21, Hollithron was told his client “had been located at University Hospital.” But it wasn’t until Hollithron talked to Oscar himself that the family found out he had tested positive for COVID-19.
ICE won’t confirm that Oscar is one of two cases at the Aurora facility that the agency announced on Wednesday, May 20. Although an ICE official did say one of the cases is a 57-year-old from Mexico who is hospitalized. The other is a 35-year-old man from El Salvador who is still at the GEO facility. In addition to the two detainees, there is currently one employee with a lab-confirmed case of COVID-19, according to the Tri-County Health Department. Tri-County Health says all three cases are unrelated, and exposure in all three cases occurred outside of the GEO facility.
Across the country, more than 1,300 immigrants in ICE custody have tested positive for the disease in over 50 facilities. According to media reports, there have been at least two people to die of complications related to COVID-19 while being held in ICE custody. Local and national elected leaders, medical professionals and immigration advocates have long worried that the coronavirus could spread quickly among people being held in ICE detention, calling for mass releases, especially for those deemed especially vulnerable by the Centers for Disease Control.
At the Aurora facility specifically, there is concern over a long history of complaints about inadequate medical care and past handling of infectious disease outbreaks. In 2019, the facility saw outbreaks of scabies, mumps and varicella, or chicken pox, causing local health officials to intervene. At one point, 350 detainees had to be quarantined, and the outbreaks drew public criticism from elected officials, who decried both ICE and GEO Group’s communication and handling of the situation.
Since then, Congressman Jason Crow’s office has been conducting weekly accountability reports at the facility.
“I do think that the Aurora contract facility is in a better position than they were a year ago since we started the oversight,” Crow says. “But it’s far from where it needs to be, and there are a lot of problems that remain that we’re going to continue to work with the administrators of that facility to try to address. And we still have questions remaining about their ability to address an outbreak of this nature in that facility.”
According to the last accountability report from Crow’s office, one detainee was hospitalized on May 19, the day he also tested positive for COVID-19. The second case was confirmed on May 20, after the person was placed in isolation after he began displaying symptoms on May 18. The dorm he was in previously has 10 occupants according to the report.
Throughout the pandemic, Crow has raised concerns with ICE on a national level over access to legal counsel and contract minimums at different facilities that mean detainees are moved from place to place.
“Transfers during this period have to just stop. I mean, I don’t know how else to put it,” Crow says. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, tens of thousands of Americans are dying, our civilian health care system is struggling in some ways to keep up with it, let alone a broken immigration [detention system] to tend with here.”
Oscar’s case is especially alarming, Crow says, given that he was moved from a facility with a known outbreak. At the Sterling Correctional Facility there are 530 inmates with confirmed cases of COVID-19 and two people have died as of May 26.
It remains unclear exactly when Oscar first exhibited symptoms. Due to HIPAA regulations and privacy concerns, the Department of Corrections (DOC) refused to answer specific questions regarding his personal medical information, including when he was last tested for COVID-19. However, Public Information Officer Annie Skinner says that according to DOC policy, all inmates at the Sterling facility are being tested for COVID-19, and they are undergoing temperature checks before being transferred to other facilities.
According to an ICE official, there have been four prisoner transfers from the Sterling facility since the beginning of the pandemic. They were all tested for COVID-19 upon entry and were housed separately from the general population after they arrived. In the case of Oscar, he was immediately placed in isolation upon arrival at the Aurora facility. The official says the agency had no choice in detaining Oscar given his criminal history as mandated by law, regardless of his health risks. In March 2020, he was convicted of illegal re-entry, a felony offense, and was being held at Sterling stemming from a 1998 drug conviction in Boulder County.
The last time Alma saw her brother was in June 2019, at a detention center in El Paso, Texas, when he was first detained trying to cross the border. He had been deported from the U.S. decades earlier, and had resolved to stay in Mexico, living alone in the small mountain community of Gomez Farias in the state of Chihuahua. But all his kids and grandkids lived in Boulder, and due to financial reasons, they couldn’t come visit him. So, Alma says, he decided to try and come for a month-long visit to see his family before returning home. He never intended to stay.
“He would always tell me, ‘I don’t want to be in hiding. I don’t want to sneak around. But I do want to see my children and my grandchildren,’” Alma says.
For months after he was detained at the border, she says, Oscar was bounced around from facility to facility and sometimes the family would go days without knowing where he was. At one point, he called and said he was going to be deported so Alma traveled down to Juarez to make sure she was there on the other side of the border when he was released, only to find out he had been transferred up to Colorado. This past experience makes her skeptical about what will happen if he is released from the hospital still in ICE custody.
“I am not confident that he’ll be treated well and that his human rights, the rights that all of us have as human beings, will be respected by Immigration and by the officials at GEO,” Alma says. “I’m very much worried that if he’s returned to their custody, he will get sick again and possibly die.”
Oscar’s transfer has raised concerns among immigration advocates who say that ICE was “reckless” to bring someone who had knowingly been exposed to COVID-19 into the Aurora facility, putting all the detainees being held there, as well as staff, at risk. According to Jennifer Piper from the American Friends Services Committee (AFSC), Oscar was transferred with at least one other person from the Sterling facility, and was housed with at least one other person on the medical unit at GEO. She questions what precautions the facility is taking to protect both personnel and detainees.
“What they’re doing with having put him in detention, even in their medical unit directly, is they’re endangering the health of everyone in that facility,” Hollithron adds.
What’s more concerning, Piper says, is how difficult it was to find out information about Oscar even through a lawyer.
“ICE failed to communicate to family, lawyer or congressional offices that Oscar’s test was positive and that he had been transferred to the hospital until almost 36 hours later,” she alleges. “They put up procedural barriers, refused to respond to further questions and hid critical information.”
It doesn’t give her much confidence that either ICE or GEO will adequately care for the other man still at the facility who has tested positive for COVID-19. It’s only more reason why ICE needs to be releasing more people from detention centers both in Aurora and around the country in order to protect everyone from the spread of the coronavirus, she says.
ICE has released about 900 people who are medically vulnerable from its custody since March 1, and overall the detained population has dropped by 7,000 as detention bookings have decreased significantly compared to the same time period last year. But more could still be done, Crow says.
“We need to look at who can be safely released using humanitarian parole,” Crow says. “It’s the right thing for the individuals detained. It’s the right thing for the staff. It’s the right thing for our community and I think for our country, and the administration needs to use that mechanism much more aggressively.”
Currently, there is no clear timeline from when Oscar will be released from the hospital or what will happen once he is. Hollithron says he’s working with the deportation officer to ensure that he is either released directly to Mexico or at the very least granted parole to be with his family in Boulder County until his deportation arrangements can be made. They are not advocating that he be allowed to stay in the U.S. but they also don’t want him, any under circumstances, to be detained again at the GEO facility.
“After this experience, I don’t trust Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” Alma says. “It’s very hard being in their custody, both for the people who are in their custody, and for those of us who have loved ones inside, it’s a very difficult and frightening situation.”
Alma was able to speak with Oscar again on Friday, May 22. Toward the end of the phone call, she says, her brother, usually quiet and strong, broke down, frightened that if he is returned to GEO he won’t have enough strength to survive, she says.
“He’s very scared to return to GEO,” she says. “He’s so exhausted right now. He’s sure he’ll die if he goes back there.”
After the phone call with her brother, Alma says, she cried again.
Update: As of late Thursday, May 28, Alma says Oscar called her to let her know that he had been transferred back to the GEO facility, despite still testing positive with COVID-19. Additionally, nine more cases were reported at the facility.