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ICE Refused Help in Containing Coronavirus in New Mexico Detention Centers

Kathy Kunkel, secretary of the NMDOH, said she was concerned about ICE’s Otero County Processing Center (Otero) located just outside Chaparral, New Mexico. She had heard that detainees there were responsible for disinfecting their own living spaces but were not being provided adequate cleaning supplies. She said they lived in confined and crowded conditions, making social distancing a complete impossibility. They were not even getting their bedding washed regularly.

After Kunkel earned her law degree and worked many years in the attorney general’s office, she became general counsel for NMDOH, working her way to deputy director. In 2019, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed her as health secretary. She is in charge of managing the state’s response to the pandemic, which she has done aggressively. She has successfully worked to contain the COVID-19 crisis in New Mexico’s schools, childcare centers, hospitals, nursing homes and correctional facilities. As of August 2020, New Mexico was among the states with the lowest per capita infection rate, with a positivity rate of 1 in 30. Surrounding states, such as Texas and Arizona, were 1-in-6 and 1-in-4, respectively.

E-mails obtained by the social justice news outlet, Reveal, show that when the pandemic first struck Otero in April, the detention center immediately quarantined a group of potentially infected detainees. Health services administrator Guillermo Contreras contacted the state health department’s epidemiologist Sandra Melman and asked for assistance. Melman contacted Kunkel, and Kunkel recommended all transfers into Otero be stopped and supplied the center with 500 testing kits.

Reveal states it was at this point that ICE began resisting assistance. They started stonewalling inquiries from the department of health. NMDOH staff were unsure if the testing kits had been put to use or not. Kunkel was given no response to her suggestion that transfers should be suspended. Reveal states that it was not staff at Otero (a private detention center run by Management and Training Corp. and CoreCivic) who were responsible for the resistance but the administration in ICE itself.

New Mexico Department of Correction Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero commented on ICE’s reluctance to accept assistance. “We have to be concerned about every person in New Mexico, every single person,” she said. “It continues to be a source of frustration to feel like, and to see, that these people who really should be on board with us enthusiastically - to protect the population that we serve in an institution - that they’re not following through.”

Otero is not the only ICE detention center refusing help. The center in Farmville, Virginia, refused state assistance with testing without any explanation. The Mesa Verde center in Bakersfield, California is currently enmeshed in legal proceedings where documents suggest ICE rejected assistance because they would not have the space to isolate all of the detainees who would potentially test positive.

Otero subsequently became one of ICE’s hardest hit detention centers during the pandemic with 150 detainees testing positive as of September 2020. The center in Farmville had 259 out of 298 detainees test positive in August. In all, more than 5,000 detainees and 1,000 employees in ICE’s detention network had tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the outbreak. Six detainees and two guards had lost their lives.

In a statement released to the press, ICE top official Henry Lucero stated: “ICE is firmly committed to ensuring the health and safety of individuals in its custody, its employees, contractors, and the general public.” He said they were following all guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control in promoting social distancing, providing hand sanitizer and reducing detainee populations. Finally, he stated that detainees who test positive were receiving all appropriate medical treatment. 


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