U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement faces mounting pressure as COVID-19 continues to spread through its detention facilities and civil liberty advocates levy new allegations of misconduct.
Amid the health crisis, a joint report released this week from the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and National Immigrant Justice Center alleges “cruel treatment and neglect” of disabled detainees, improper use of solitary confinement as well as multiple instances of unsanitary conditions at ICE facilities. Advocates visited five facilities in late 2019 -- prior to the known spread of coronavirus in the U.S.-- across Louisiana, Mississippi and Arizona and compiled their findings based on accounts from 150 people, mostly using pseudonyms to protect those still in custody from retaliation.
The report details the story of Manuel Amaya Portillo, a 23-year-old asylum seeker from Honduras who was apprehended at the southern border and booked into the Winn Correctional Center in October 2019. His actual name was used in the report.
Amaya Portillo lives with multiple physical disabilities. He’s abnormally short and his left leg is about half as long as the right one. In the ACLU report, he describes to interviewers being denied a wheelchair while in detention and he said he was only provided one after the ACLU got involved.
In a video provided to ABC News by the ACLU, he described struggling to use the shower on his own and had difficulty leaving the confines of his cell to visit the facility’s courtyard.
Broader concerns about conditions at ICE facilities come as the number of COVID-19 cases among detainees has grown to 522 as of Friday night, according to the agency. In total, 1,073 detainees have been tested out of the roughly 30,000 held in custody.
ICE officials do not typically discuss individual cases, but a spokesperson for the agency described facility conditions as “safe, humane and appropriate,” and said those in custody receive “exceptional care.”
“ICE detains individuals solely to secure their presence for immigration proceedings and removal from the U.S.,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “The agency’s detention resources are focused on those who present a threat to public safety, for whom detention is mandatory by law, or who may be a flight risk.”
One detainee, identified in the ACLU report only as Rosa F., was held at the Jackson Parish Correctional Center in Louisiana where she said it took more than two weeks to receive antibiotics for a snake bite she had prior to her arrest.
She’s afraid of not being able to work as a nurse again if her arm does not heal properly, an ACLU spokesperson told ABC News.
Rosa and three other detainees said the Jackson facility lacked soap and other cleaning supplies in November 2019.
Another detainee, unnamed in the report, worked in food service at the Winn Correctional Center in November 2019. He accused facility guards of retaliating against him for speaking to a reported who visited the facility in October and was subjected to eight days of solitary confinement. Enforcement and Removal Operations, the department that handles detention and deportation, has moved to reduce its detained population by 75 percent, according to a statement provided by ICE.
However, ICE data shows the vast majority of the reduction so far has come from a decline in unauthorized border crossings. Judges in New York, Pennsylvania and Florida have ordered the release of detainees at individual facilities, but no nation-wide court order has been issued so far.
Democrats have called for an independent review of ICE detention protocols and the agency’s response to COVID-19 outbreaks at their facilities.
In a letter to the Homeland Security Inspector General, Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and fellow Democrats said facilities are “not following best practices” and asked for a review of facility operations, management, standards, and general conditions at ICE facilities across the country.
“As the numbers of detainees and detention facility staff infected with COVID-19 continue to climb, we share the unease that public health experts have expressed about the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in congregate settings, like detention facilities,” the Democrats wrote.