ICE is threatening to expose immigrants to COVID-19, detainees say

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According to testimony from three men incarcerated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, guards used the threat of coronavirus to pressure them to comply with a deportation order. The three men, incarcerated at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Pine Prairie, Louisiana, relayed the information to The Intercept, alleging that guards threatened to expose them to coronavirus if they didn't cooperate.

"They were forcing us out of the dorm, pushing and dragging us," one man named Clovis Fozao said. Fozao is an immigrant from Camaroon who's been detained by ICE for 18 months. Fozao told The Intercept about how ICE guards attempted to force him to "submit to [his] deportation." "They threatened to call the SWAT team. They said they were going to put all of us into Bravo-Alpha, which is for quarantine, where they keep everyone with coronavirus," Fozao said, referring to the unit where infected incarcerated people are held.

According to Fozao, some guards have claimed that the virus is "fake" or "not real," yet they use the threat of COVID-19 exposure to coerce immigrants into signing deportation documents. "The way they manage COVID is very bad. I mean very, very bad," Fozao said. Even with the federal mandate to provide adequate personal protective equipment to all people in government custody, incarcerated immigrants told The Intercept that they were forced into "overcrowded conditions" where it was impossible to socially distance. At the Pine Prairie facility, 21 people are currently battling coronavirus infections; across all ICE facilities, there are 500 cases in total.

ICE has categorically denied creating the circumstances people like Fozao are alleging exist. "ICE is firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody," a spokesperson said to The Guardian. The spokesperson also asserted that ICE "provides safe, humane, and appropriate conditions of confinement for individuals detained in its custody," and added in a statement that ICE "has the utmost confidence in the professionalism of our workforce and their adherence to agency policy."

Recently, the White House issued an executive order stating that the federal government would end its use of private prisons. As Rebekah Entralgo pointed out in an op-ed for, "This explosion of privately operated immigration detention centers has had an abhorrent, tangible human impact on immigrant communities in the United States." The detention facility where Fozao is currently held is owned and operated by the GEO Group, a multi-million dollar corporation whose CEO made roughly $5.6 million in 2019. "Nearly every horror story that has emerged from ICE detention over the last decade or so has occurred at a facility operated by a private prison company," Entralgo explained. "Abuses are inherent within any system, private or otherwise, that cages humans."

Freedom for Immigrants, a California-based nonprofit, has filed multiple complaints with the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties with the Department of Homeland Security, which houses ICE. "Human beings detained by ICE are guaranteed certain liberty interests such as reasonably safe conditions of confinement, freedom from unauthorized use of force and deadly force, from blanket use of solitary confinement to retaliate against peaceful protesting, from unreasonable bodily restraint, and the right to food, clothing, medical care, and shelter," the complaint reads.