Immigrant advocates are concerned not enough is being done to prevent COVID-19 from entering and spreading within the ICE detention facility in Batavia. ICE was in federal court Monday and provided steps they are taking to meet CDC standards. The same day, accounts from multiple detainees said there is a lack of testing, social distancing and medical care for those showing symptoms.
Dagoberto fled El Salvador in 1984 to escape war.
“I'm very frustrated here. I almost can't handle it now. It's been so long. I just want to go home to my country, but in my country it's not safe for gay people,” Dagoberto said.
Dagoberto is 57 years old, a diabetic and after living on Long Island for most his life, has been at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility (BFDF) in Batavia for over two years. He said despite showing COVID-19 symptoms, he has not been tested.
“This past week, I have had a fever and a cold and they don't give you anything except water and salt so to speak,” he said. “Yeah, it's a bad situation.”
BFDF presented information and steps being taken to address COVID-19 concerns Monday.
The NYCLU sent a letter to the facility's leadership detailing gaps in ICE's nationwide procedural facility guidelines last month.
The federal holding center, which has a normal capacity for approximately 650 detainees, said they presently are detaining 380 individuals.
(You can view all of the steps being taken and response to litigation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Batavia Detention Facility at the bottom of this article.)
According to another detainee named Carlos, a 37 year old who has been at the facility for about two years, social distancing is not being adhered to within the dorm-like environment despite being under capacity.
“We're all together,” Carlos said. “And also there are some other inmates in the same situation as me where they're not being attended to medically and we've been told that they will not attend to us unless it is an emergency.”
The Batavia facility said as of April 6, 2020, they currently have zero confirmed cases and zero suspected cases.
Carlos said at this time, all they’ve been given for their illnesses is ibuprofen. He said he has also not been tested.
“I've been pretty sick lately for probably the past seven or eight days,” Carlos said. “I've had a fever. I've had a cough. I've not had any appetite and though I have put down my name on the list or asked to be attended, I have not been helped.”
Carlos and Dagoberto have said they have seen more masks around, but neither have had access to them as of April 6.
Last week, Justice for Migrant Families received a letter from an anonymous group of people highlighting concerns such as food preparation and transfers into the facility.
BFDF said they have ‘increased sanitation frequency and thoroughness amid this medical emergency, including cleaning the facility several times daily throughout housing units and common work areas.’
Justice for Migrant Families Executive Director Jennifer Connor said given the concerns they’re still hearing, that may not be enough.
“You could have the people with the best intentions and they're not going to be able to achieve what the guidelines are,” Connor said. “And the letter we received from people inside-- these are smart people. They know what they're supposed to be doing. And they know it can’t happen in the structure of immigrant detention. And they really lay that out very logically in the letter.”
Immigration advocates are calling on the BFDF to release detainees with a place waiting for them outside of the facility.
Here is a portion of the letter:
We, the detainees of the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility, in Batavia, New York, in this time of fear and confusion, plea with you, give voice to our situation as Civil Immigration Detainees.
We are detained at this Facility, which has a capacity for some six hundred and fifty detainees. Many of us are simply, immigration violators. We have come to this country, some with some form of visa that we have violated, admittedly, by being overstayers.
Many of us have come, begging at the doors for Asylum, seeking to avoid being tortured, raped and murdered by different regimes, or those the regime favor. Many of us come from countries, like El Salvador, to where if we are returned, because of the label of M-13 membership, will be arrested, tortured and murdered by the Government.
Even others are from Venezuela, seeking haven in this country, from a corrupt and ruthless regime, as substantiated by the United States. We are also from India, feeling the persecution of the Indian Government against Punjabis. We are many, who have, unfortunately been convicted of crimes, who have served our time, and are now in ICE/DHS custody, in immigration proceedings. However, not withstanding any of our personal conditions as detainees, we do not deserve to be detained to die.
The coronavirus pandemic is affecting the world and this country. The news reports show hourly, the amount of new cases, the lack of medication, staff and resources available to treat those afflicted. Most frightening is the escalation in deaths, in New York State, not to mention new cases in New York and the rest of this nation.
Being detained here, we are like the proverbial lamb waiting to be slaughtered. At BFDF [Buffalo Federal Detention Facility], there are on the average, a complement of 50 Detention Officers, all employed by AGS, aka Akima Global Services, a contractor to ICE/ DHS. Additionally, there are about twelve Clinical Staff, twenty Food Workers and another fifteen or twenty Maintenance Staff/ Janitorial Staff. These are employed by a different unknown contractor.
In each housing unit, there is an assigned Detention Officer, who is relieved at various times daily, by another Detention Officer. This occurs on the day and night shift.
In order to go to the Clinic, we are escorted by other Detention Officers. In the event of a Court date, we are escorted and pat searched by another Detention Officer.
The food we are served, is prepared and packaged by the Food Service workers of AGS.
If necessary, in the housing units, the Maintenance staff enter, to repair or swap out the microwave ovens, or ice machines. They come into the units to clear clogs in the waste disposal system.
The janitorial workers come into the units to clean the ceiling vents, range hoods, televisions, etc.
This alone should indicate the volume of interaction we experience on a daily basis, with others from the outside- ANY ONE OF WHOM CAN INFECT AND CAUSE ALL OF OUR DEATHS, perhaps unconscious of being a carrier of COVID-19.
You can read more of the letter here.
Could there be a possibility of a carrier of COVID-19 at the facility now? Connor thinks so.
"The World Health Organization declared this a pandemic on March 11. On March 12, fifty-ish people were put on a bus from and transferred into Batavia from four facilities across the state and in New Jersey. So that kind of response for one thing by ICE is just so problematic. I do believe that as every day goes by, people realize the increasing seriousness and need for a better response."
Connor said one way the facility could improve safety is by releasing some detainees on bond.
“We have been working with a couple bond funds, so nonprofits that will pay people's bonds, and that's realistically again, (one) main way people have been getting out is through these donations, individual donations across the US to try to help people get out of detention,” Connor said. “We've worked with the National Bond Fund and recently with the Let My People Go Bail Fund.”
Most detainees can't afford to pay the thousands of dollars it costs for representation. Many have trouble just being able to pay for food from the commissary.
"I cannot pay for my own commissary. My family can't afford it either. My family is trying to help me find another lawyer," said Dagoberto. "How can I get a lawyer? I don't have money for a lawyer and I know I need a lawyer."
WXXI reporter Noelle E. C. Evans said as of September 12, 2019, there was a volunteer work program where folks can work for one dollar a day which would go directly to commissary.
Multiple detainees emphasized the importance of having commissary funds. Carlos and Dagoberto both said nutrition in the facility was lacking, which you could make up for through the commissary. But the cost is relatively high.
"I would say that the commissary is very high," said Dagoberto. "Anything that you have to pay for-- even you have to pay nine cents for like a little sugar packet for your coffee."
Making calls from the facility also usually would require money, however BFDF said they will allow detainees to make calls without a weekly cost moving forward.
The court proceedings,as it has for Dagoberto and Carlos, can take years to transition people back into the community. Batavia Immigration Court has also been facing additional recent challenges as reported by Evans.
Court procedures were a challenge for Ken, who was let out of the facility March 16 and is currently residing in Western New York.
“The day I arrived, the first thing that they told me, the deportation official who transported me, said in nine days you will see the judge,” said Ken. “And after nine days, we did not see the judge. In fact, for four months, we didn't see a judge.”
Ken saw a judge January 6, 2020. While he awaited for release, he had his own ailments.
"I experienced pain in my back and in my chest," Ken said. "And when I went to the clinic, they really didn't have solutions to these to these problems to these illnesses, and they would just give me ibuprofen and it was never a solution."
Over the months he spent in the facility, he saw several other detainees struggle to get care.
“There was a man from the country of Georgia in Europe. He had serious allergies that he was experiencing in his body. And he went to the clinic five times seeking care for his allergic reactions. And each time they would just give him ibuprofen, ibuprofen, ibuprofen, and when he kept demanding medical care, they put him in solitary confinement,” Ken said. “They were not able to offer solutions to people and so I do not have confidence in the clinic. You are not allowed to ask for anything when you're in Batavia. And if you insist, then you are the problem.”
Ken believes if COVID-19 enters Batavia, it could be a catastrophe.
According to WXXI's Evans, as of September, BFDF had 60 ICE officers and 250 contracted officers, all of whom could be at risk were COVID-19 to spread at the facility.
BFDF in response said they will reduce staff.
On ICE’s website, it says anyone who requires medical attention can attend medical appointments.
Detainees like Carlos who have had trouble getting care, said they hope the facility will take action placing value on all human life.
“In reality, I always have hope. I always keep faith and this is a terrible situation but I continue to fight,” Carlos said.
WXXI reporter Noelle E. C. Evans contributed to this report.
OFFICIAL ICE RESPONSE TO LITIGATION AND STEPS BEING TAKEN AT BFDF
1. Since the onset of reports of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (“COVID-19”), ICE epidemiologists have been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to field staff on screening and management of potential exposure among detainees.
2. In testing for COVID-19, IHSC is also following guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) to safeguard those in its custody and care.
3. Each detainee is screened for disabilities upon admission. Identified disabilities are further evaluated and reasonable accommodations are provided as medically appropriate.
4. At the BFDF, during intake medical screenings, detainees are assessed for fever and respiratory illness. They are asked to confirm if they have had close contact with a person with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 in the past 14 days, and whether they have traveled from or through areas with sustained community transmission in the past two weeks. Upon arrival at the garage bay and before they enter the facility, all detainees are checked with a thermometer for fever. This process has been in place since as early as March 12, 2020.
5. The detainee’s responses and the results of these assessments will dictate whether to monitor or isolate the detainee. Those detainees who present symptoms compatible with COVID-19 will be placed in isolation, where they will be tested. If testing is positive, they will remain isolated and treated. In case of any clinical deterioration, they will be placed in the BFDF medical bay or referred to a local hospital.
6. For all incoming detainees, and in cases of a detainee with known exposure to a person with confirmed COVID-19, detainees are placed in quarantine with restricted movement for the duration of the most recent incubation period (14 days after most recent exposure to an ill detainee) and are monitored daily for fever and symptoms of respiratory illness.
7. Quarantine is an infection-prevention strategy which involves housing detainees together who were exposed to a person with an infectious organism but are asymptomatic. This practice lasts for the duration of the incubation period of 14 days, because individuals with these and other communicable diseases can be contagious before they develop symptoms and can serve as undetected source patients.
8. Those that show onset of fever and/or respiratory illness are referred to a medical provider for evaluation.
9. Quarantine is discontinued when the 14-day incubation period completes with no new cases. If new detainees are added to the quarantine, the 14-day period restarts.
10. Per ICE policy, detainees diagnosed with any communicable disease who require isolation are place in an appropriate setting in accordance with CDC or state and local health department guidelines.
11. The BFDF manages both males and females, provides daily access to sick calls in a clinical setting, and has an onsite medical infirmary and mental health services with the ability to admit patients at the local hospital for mental health care. Sick call is currently being utilized to screen detainees with any complaints related to the COVID-19 virus. Detainees arriving at the facility will be placed in quarantined dorms and separated from the general population for 14 days until cleared. If new persons are added, or someone becomes ill, then the 14-day quarantine restarts.
12. As of April 6, 2020, there are zero confirmed cases of COVID-19 at BFDF and there are zero suspected cases of COVID-19 at BFDF.
13. The BFDF is at nearly half-capacity. It has a normal capacity for approximately 650 detainees, and is presently detaining approximately 380 individuals.
14. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the BFDF has increased sanitation frequency and thoroughness amid this medical emergency, including cleaning the facility several times daily throughout housing units and common work areas. Paid detainee workers clean common areas and hallways with Fresh Breeze, a viricide/disinfectant/fungicide/tuberculocide. PF 3 Hi-Con, a disinfectant/viricide/fungicide/tuberculocide, is used in cleaning housing areas. The use of detainee workers reduces the contact rate between ICE staff and detainees and helps limit any exposure between populations. Detainee workers are provided goggles, gloves, and other personal protective equipment (“PPE”) as directed by safety data sheets and manufacturer requirements for chemicals.
15. Staff at BFDF has access to handwashing stations, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and full PPE. Detainees have continual access to handwashing stations.
16. Personal visits have been temporarily disallowed to prevent the introduction of COVID-19 into the BFDF.
17. Detainees have been educated about the need to decrease exposure as a result of movement changes. Sick call education and staying healthy education is provided to all detainees through intake, the physical exam, and in the detainee handbook.
18. Access to legal counsel remains a paramount requirement. The BFDF is mitigating the risk of exposure by allowing legal counsels visits in the no-contact room which features a plastic window barrier separating detainees from attorneys.
19. Detainees have their own tablets which can make collect calls, and additional policies have been put in place allowing detainees to make phone and video calls weekly without cost.
20. Gatherings of detainees have been cancelled or are being completed in dorms and their respective outdoor areas. Recreation remains available outside. Social distancing is being practiced by staff to the fullest extent possible. This includes distancing between staff members as well as staff and detainees. No tours or outside visitors are allowed at the BFDF unless deemed necessary. Shift changes have been set at different times to allow for social distancing.
21. ICE staff has been reduced, and most employees are working remotely.
22. Additional steps to help combat the introduction, and limit the spread, of COVID-19 to BFDF include:
a. Decrease intake of new detainees;
b. Consideration of release for non-criminal detainees and those with highest medical risks;
c. Sanitizing of transport vehicles;
d. Carrying of masks for detainee use and staff use during transports or pick-ups;
e. Use of templates with increased screening questions, specifically for COVID 19, for new arrivals;
f. Temperature checks in the parking garage for any new or returning detainee;
g. 14-day quarantine of any hospitalized detainee upon return;
h. Education material placed in intake/nursing station for nursing to refer to;
i. Education on how to take a COVID 19 sample for medical staff;
j. Increased stock of PPE and cleaning supplies;
k. Removal of option for staff to trade posts for custody staff;
l. Fit testing of PPE masks for custody staff and removal of facial hair that may interfere with tight seal of mask to face;
m. Town hall in dorms by custody management to inform and educate detainees as to ongoing concerns;
n. Education of detainees during sick call in all dorms by nursing;
o. Weekly counting of PPE to monitor supplies;
p. Closer monitoring of detainee workers;
q. Purchase of new cleaning supplies that require less contact time;
r. Significant decrease in routine meetings that require groups;
s. No new custody hires in medical clinic;
t. Decrease in off-site appointments unless deemed a necessity, to decrease exposure of staff and detainees at outside facility;
u. Review of cleaning chemicals by custody staff;
v. Surgical masks for detainee use to reduce exposure;
w. Rounds performed by infection control officer to review processes and procedures currently being utilized;
x. Removal of all but 2 detainee workers from kitchen;
y. Removal of all detainee workers who assisted with laundry folding;
z. Custody staff has been given an increased stock of PPE;
aa. All staff and visitors have their temperature taken at the main gate to the facility, before even entering BFDF grounds (this includes delivery persons);
bb. Staff has been advised of the importance of social distancing;
cc. Staff has been informed of the importance of self-monitoring symptoms and taking their temperatures. Also informed them if they are not feeling well to stay home;
dd. Several pre-briefing musters will replace the one main muster per shift to keep staff from congregating in one area;
ee. Cancelled all annual refresher training sessions until further notice;
ff. Cancelled all classroom firearms annual training sessions until further notice;
gg. Established separate quarantine unit for all incoming male detainees. They will be held in this unit, kept on minimum movement, and put on 14 day quarantine to evaluate and ensure they do not have symptoms of the COVID-19 Virus;
hh. Detainees who are moved out of the male quarantine unit for any type emergency will be required to wear N-95 mask and gloves;
ii. A female-only quarantine unit is being utilized for any incoming female detainees, They will be held in this unit and kept on minimum movement and put on 14 day quarantine to evaluate and ensure they do not have symptoms of the COVID-19 Virus;
jj. Detainees moving out of the female-only unit for any type of emergency will be required to wear N-95 mask and gloves;
kk. In dormitories with larger number of beds, every other bed is being left vacant to ensure distancing between detainees, to the fullest extent possible;
ll. All group gatherings that do not allow for social distancing have been cancelled, including art classes, barbering services, religious gatherings, and others;
mm. Detainees have been encouraged to increase communication with BFDF staff via the electronic request and grievance forms on the tablets and an increased number of staff are monitoring and responding more frequently;
nn. Essential visitation, such as attorneys visits, or ICE staff serving paperwork that they cannot serve via inter office mail, are encouraged to use the non-contact visitation booth and if they must use the contact booth, they are required to use PPE;
oo. Participation in detainee work programs have been decreased to avoid interaction with staff and amongst detainees;
pp. In housing units with communal beds, every other bed is being left vacant to allow for social distancing between beds;
qq. In the medium-high to high level criminal dormitories, double-occupancy rooms have been filled with only 1 detainee, to the extent possible, to maximize social distancing;
rr. Meals are allowed to be eaten in rooms or at beds to ensure maximum social distancing during meal times.