Immigrants with HIV are being packed into unsafe detention centers


Advocacy groups say their health is at risk and are demanding their release.

Two asylum seekers living with HIV are being held in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in eastern Texas that LGBTQ advocates say can't possibly abide by social distancing and other guidance during the pandemic.

The two men, whom LGBTQ groups are referring to by the pseudonyms Ramón and Ivan to protect their identities, have been detained since October of last year and were persecuted in Cuba due to their sexual orientation and political activism. They are being kept at the IAH Secure Detention Facility in Livingston.

Immigration Equality, an LGBTQ immigrant rights organization that represents and advocates for LGBTQ and HIV-positive people in the immigration system; Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ-focused public policy and litigation organization; and co-counsel Vinson & Elkins, have urged ICE to release them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said people who are immunocompromised, including people with poorly controlled HIV or AIDS, are at risk for serious illness from COVID-19.

In a letter sent to the detention facility on Monday, the groups said that, despite a confirmed case of COVID-19 on the center's website, the men had been told there were no cases at the facility.

Ramón and Ivan also said that nurses and medical staff were still not wearing necessary protective gear and that detainees were "exposed to people exhibiting symptoms consistent with COVID-19 when moving about the facility."

The legal advocates said the men had not received signage or education on COVID-19 and safety measures they should take to prevent infection. If they ran out of soap, they were expected to purchase it, they added.

"It is impossible for people held in ICE detention to abide by public health guidance about social distancing and frequent hand-washing when they have limited access to soap and cleaning materials and are in frequent contact in small spaces with people who have potentially been exposed to the coronavirus," Lambda Legal staff attorney Puneet Cheema said in a statement.

Last week a federal judge ordered ICE to consider releasing detained people who are at increased risk of complications from COVID-19, in response to a lawsuit against the agency filed by the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Disability Rights Advocates, and several other groups.

According to the plaintiffs in that case, ICE officials had forced some detainees into lockdown, in close quarters with cellmates for all but a few hours a day. Transferees were placed in housing units with people who had shown symptoms associated with COVID-19, and detainees with cleaning assignments were forced to mop and sweep without gloves or protective protective equipment.

Staff at the detention facilities were also allegedly inconsistent about wearing face masks to prevent further spread of the virus.

U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal said that ICE had shown "medical indifference" because it had failed to develop a timely response to the pandemic and ordered the agency to "identify and track" detainees with high risk factors and consider releasing them.

"[ICE] likely exhibited callous indifference to the safety and wellbeing of [detainees at higher risk of complications]," Bernal said. "The evidence suggests systemwide inaction that goes beyond a mere 'difference of medical opinion or negligence.'"

The court also certified a class action lawsuit on behalf of the detainees, which includes people living with HIV.

Lambda Legal, Immigration Equality, and their co-counsel said this week that, because of Bernal's order, ICE is required to make a timely determination on Ramón and Ivan's custody.

"Ramón and Ivan fled Cuba to seek safety in the United States and now they fear for their lives," Bridget Crawford, legal director at Immigration Equality, said in a statement. "ICE could release them today. They are both parole eligible with qualifying sponsors. But despite warnings from experts on the dire consequences of COVID-19 for people in detention, and the steps taken by jails, prisons, and judges in the criminal context to release those in custody, ICE and DHS continue to put these men in mortal danger."

Earlier this month, ICE released four other Immigration Equality clients, all of them gay men living with HIV. Two had been detained at Richwood Correctional Center in Louisiana, one man stayed at Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana, and another man was kept at La Palma Correctional Center in Arizona.

The group initially demanded all six men — the four held at Richwood, Winn, and La Palma, as well as Ramón and Ivan — be released from detention in a complaint sent on March 23.

That complaint alleged that Ivan, who had contracted the flu, had only received Tylenol to treat his cough symptoms —insufficient treatment for someone living with HIV. The complaint claimed he had been told nothing more could be done to treat him until his condition worsened.

Ramón said he had numerous interruptions in his HIV medication while in detention in La Palma Correctional Center and had similar experiences to Ivan's when he contracted the flu.

Aaron Morris, executive director at Immigration Equality, noted that conditions for people living with HIV in ICE facilities have been poor for years.

In 2018, Roxsana Hernandez, a transgender woman from Honduras, died of an AIDS-related illness while in ICE custody. The official autopsy noted that she had untreated HIV infection and that both ICE and Customs and Border Patrol knew about her HIV status but did not give her the antiretroviral drugs she needed.

"There were just these silly administrative things that ICE was doing that [were] really putting people in danger," Morris said. "HIV care in the system has been terrible for years and when the pandemic came to the United States, we really began to hear from terrified clients."

He added, "...If you're getting terrible health care, and if you're HIV positive and immunosuppressed and there’s a pandemic coming, it's a recipe for disaster."

Morris is now worried about facilities being locked down, since that is often how ICE facilities respond to infections.

During a mumps outbreak at a detention center in rural Louisiana, for instance, attorneys were not allowed in the facility to see their clients.

"With COVID, we're going to deal with this — if you're being optimistic — for 6 months," he said. "They can't lock down the facility for six months like that. That sounds like torture to me."

Conditions at ICE facilities have been poor for years, and for many LGBTQ people, those conditions can be particularly dangerous.

According to a 2018 analysis of government data from the Center for American Progress, LGBTQ immigrants who are detained at these centers are 97 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than cisgender and straight detainees. These detainees account for 0.1% of those detained in 2017 but are 12% of people who reported sexual assault while in ICE detention.

The analysis also notes that in some cases, transgender women are placed with men or put in solitary confinement, which may endanger their health because they are cut off from others, or may increase their risk of self-harm.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.