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In early April, a man NIJC is representing in immigration court tested positive for COVID-19 while in custody at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, California.

On May 6, Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, another individual detained at Otay Mesa, died from COVID-19. Mr. Escobar Mejia's death marks the first COVID-19 death in ICE detention, something NIJC and other advocates have feared since the outbreak started.

Photo of outside Otay Mesa Detention Center
Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego

As long as ICE refuses to release people in detention, like Carlos and our client Gustavo, all who are in custody are in danger.

When Gustavo, NIJC's client, first exhibited symptoms, he asked for medical assistance and was told that he could not receive it without submitting a written request. When, finally, the nurse did see him, he was sent back to his cell—a small space he shared with seven other people—and told to wait, without any testing.

He shared with me that an officer yelled at him to get up, telling him, “I don’t care about your life. I care about my job.”

Gustavo’s symptoms continued to worsen. After being sick for several days, his cellmates became worried about the severity of his fever and other symptoms and asked the guards for help. They spent much of the night trying to get assistance; an officer finally came to their cell around 3:30 a.m, and told them that no staff were in the medical unit to provide care at that time. Later that day, Gustavo was so weak that he could not stand for the count.

He shared with me that an officer yelled at him to get up, telling him, “I don’t care about your life. I care about my job.”

Five days after his symptoms began, Gustavo was tested for COVID-19 and was moved to medical isolation. Our other clients at Otay Mesa have told me that cellmates of people who are isolated for medical reasons have been kept in the same cell and have not received tests, additional cleaning supplies, or other protective gear. While some units have been instructed to mop the floors and wipe down surfaces every hour, they are often only provided with water and no soap.

Sick and Isolated

Even in medical isolation, Gustavo has shared that he has trouble receiving care. His requests for help are often ignored. He often cannot eat the food he is served due to his allergies. To get the attention of a nurse, he said he has to walk to the door of his cell, which leaves him struggling and out of breath. When he asked a nurse for an extra blanket, he said he was told he had to submit a request form to CoreCivic, the private prison company that operates the detention center. He said that when he asked a guard for medicine, he was again told to fill out a request form to see a nurse.

At one point, he told me, his symptoms became so severe that the person he shared an isolation cell with spent hours banging on the door to get a guard or nurse’s attention for medical assistance. When a nurse finally came, he was taken to the emergency room at a nearby hospital. He was returned to Otay Mesa the same day and continues to struggle to receive care.

Not long after his diagnosis, he told me that an officer informed him and the other men sharing his isolation cell that they needed to clean the cell themselves every 30 minutes. Feeling too weak to even ask for assistance, cleaning was out of the question. Our clients say that the detention center has not made alternative arrangements to clean the isolation cells—they remain dirty with dried vomit and phlegm, including in the showers.

A Common Story

Gustavo's story demonstrates the dangers of being detained during the COVID-19 pandemic, where social distancing is, he has told us, next to impossible.

Gustavo told me that what he’s been through is not unique. He told me that when other people have exhibited symptoms consistent with COVID-19, they were often ignored until those symptoms become so severe that officers were forced to pay attention. Only then were they removed from the pod, which they shared with up to seven other people, and sent to medical isolation.

Many clients at Otay Mesa have told me they are unable to practice social distancing both in and outside of their cells.

The sleeping rooms contain bunks and are too small to maintain a full 6-foot distance between people. Communal living spaces in the middle of each housing unit are shared by 90 to 120 individuals; there are 12 shared phones and four shared bathing areas, each with three showerheads. Toilets and sinks are shared.

People at Otay Mesa do not have consistent access to soap, sanitizer, tissues, or no-touch disposal receptacles. Even though new facility guidelines require that the common areas be wiped down each hour using a spray bottle cleaning solution, my clients have told me that jail staff does not clean. Instead, they say, officers recruit detained immigrants to clean in exchange for an extra peanut butter sandwich. People are increasingly reluctant to clean for a sandwich, as fears of sickness increase. I’m told that access to gloves while cleaning is inconsistent: sometimes they are provided, but supplies are not replenished frequently, and in one pod no gloves were available for cleaning for two days.

Each person I have spoken to expressed frustration that their safety was not being taken seriously and fear that they will contract COVID-19 and die. According to my clients, most or all people in each of their units have gone on hunger strike for some period of time. They are worried that not eating will weaken their immune systems but feel that they have no other choice to make officials pay attention.

As of May 1, more than 100 individuals at Otay Mesa had tested positive for COVID-19. A lawsuit was filed for the release of medically vulnerable individuals at Otay Mesa, but to date, only two of the more than 70 individuals listed have been released. NIJC filed a habeas petition on Gustavo’s behalf at the end of April, but federal court actions should not be necessary to protect people from inhumane treatment by the U.S. government during a global pandemic.


Dorien Ediger-Seto is a senior attorney in NIJC's San Diego office, where she represents individuals detained by ICE in both the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego and the Imperial Regional Detention Facility in Calexico.