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ICE Deportations Fueling Spread of COVID-19 to Latin American Countries

After being detained by ICE in the Krome Detention Center in Florida for three weeks, “Carlos,” a Colombian national who flew to Indianapolis under a travel visa to go shopping with his aunt for toys and clothes for his newborn son, was put on a plane and sent back to Colombia by ICE. What nobody knew was that Carlos was infected with COVID-19 and brought it back to his country, along with several others on that plane. And nobody on the plane was given masks.

Nicholas Barrera, another Colombian deported by ICE, spent four months in Krome and another ICE facility in Wakulla County, Florida. Protected in a “sanctuary city” in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Barrera was picked up by ICE in Florida (not a protected area) for a broken headlight. He was deported, leaving his wife and kids back in Maryland. He tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in Colombia.

Karen Rivera traveled to Tampa to visit her daughter, and when her plane stopped in Miami she was targeted for a random drug test. She was clean. But she was then accused by ICE of entering the U.S. to find work, which violated her tourist visa. She was held at the Broward Transitional Center (BTC) in Pompano, Florida, and then flown back to Colombia. Upon arrival, she tested positive for COVID-19.

Julian Mesa chose to be deported rather than stay at the Bristol County House of Corrections in Massachusetts, after illegally crossing the border in Texas to escape threats in Colombia. “The conditions inside Bristol were scary,” he told Jenny Manrique at Palabra. Despite guards and prisoners testing positive, “we still were sharing bunk beds with more than 60 people per housing unit. We protested. Demanded tests. But that never happened.” Instead, detainees were threatened with solitary confinement if they asked for a test or complained about the conditions.

Gonzalo Botero, another deportee, said “the most irresponsible thing [the government did] was to send me home after the positive result, because I then infected my wife and her nephew.” He spent two weeks at the Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana before being flown back to Colombia.

The rush to get these supposed illegal immigrants out of the U.S. happened under a program called ICE Air Operations (IAO), which flew out 70,000 deportees to 19 Latin American countries during 2020, according to ICE data. Some of this happened during the coronavirus pandemic. But they don’t go straight back home. First, they stop around the country at immigration camps while ICE collects enough deportees before loading up the planes, exposing deportees to thousands of staff and other detainees at places known to be hot spots for COVID-19.

For example, the deportees mentioned here bound for Colombia stopped in Georgia, Texas, Indiana, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Tennessee to pick up more deportees. Nobody wore masks, they said. In fact, they weren’t given masks by ICE until they were in Colombia.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) investigated immigration detention centers that opened during the Trump era and found prolonged detentions and unsanitary conditions that led to the spread of COVID-19 among detainees. It was estimated that seven out of 10 detainees in ICE custody may become infected with COVID-19.

Courts have also stepped in and ordered the detention center populations thinned out. On April 30, 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Cooke ordered the three detentions centers in Florida mentioned here to reduce their populations nearly five-fold. On May 12, 2020, U.S. District Court Judge William Young ordered the release of dozens of ICE detainees from the Bristol Detention Center, after a class action lawsuit filed by 148 detainees about the conditions there. The ACLU also noted that the Winn Correctional Center has had problems with adequate medical care.

Deportees returning home to Latin America have faced threats from the locals. In Guatemala, where most of the detainees were returned, villagers threatened to lynch an infected detainee if he returned there, and another town set up roadblocks to keep officials from moving infected former detainees to centers there.