Otay Mesa Detention Center experiences first detained migrant death from COVID-19

n this June 9, 2017, photo, a vehicle drives into the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego./File

The first confirmed death in an ICE detention center from COVID-19 has been reported at Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. Otay Mesa is run by the private, for-profit contractor, CoreCivic.

A 57-year-old person in immigration custody died Wednesday, May 6 from complications related to the coronavirus, authorities said, marking the first reported death from the virus among about 30,000 people in immigration custody.

The detainee had been held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego and hospitalized since late April, said Craig Sturak, a spokesman for the San Diego County Health & Human Services Agency.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would neither confirm nor deny the death. CoreCivic Inc., the private company that operates the detention center, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Otay Mesa has been a hotbed for the spread of COVID-19, with nearly one of five detainees who have tested positive nationwide. As of Wednesday, 132 of ICE’s 705 positive cases were at the San Diego facility. Additionally, 10 of 39 ICE detention employees who have tested positive are at Otay Mesa.

With nearly 200 confirmed cases, Otay Mesa has the largest COVID-19 outbreak of any ICE detention center in the country. Migrants detained there have referred to it as a “death trap,” due to the lack of precautionary measures being taken by staff.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties filed a class action lawsuit against ICE and CoreCivic demanding they dramatically reduce the number of people detained at Otay Mesa to protect their health and safety in light of this pandemic. Last week, a judge ordered ICE and CoreCivic to begin releasing medically vulnerable people in custody at Otay Mesa immediately. By Monday, ICE had identified over 130 such people, but had only released two.

Andrea Flores, deputy director of immigration policy at the ACLU, issued the following statement:

“This is a terrible tragedy, and it was entirely predictable and preventable. For months, public health experts and corrections officials have warned that detention centers would be petri dishes for the spread of COVID-19 — and a death trap for thousands of people in civil detention. Unless ICE acts quickly to release far more people from detention, they will keep getting sick and many more will die. Since the Trump administration began, 40 people have died in ICE detention. The administration’s obsession with incarcerating people was dangerous before COVID-19, and now it is a death sentence.”

Monika Y. Langarica, immigrants’ rights staff attorney at the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, issued the following statement:

“We extend our sincere condolences to the family of the person who passed away in ICE custody at Otay Mesa this morning. We filed a lawsuit demanding the immediate release of medically vulnerable people from Otay Mesa weeks ago, urging that release under these circumstances is a matter of life and death. Today one of those people has died because ICE refused to release him when he still had a chance to survive this deadly virus. We continue to call on ICE and CoreCivic to act urgently and with humanity. This tragic news is even more evidence that failing to act will result in cruel and needless death.”

The frequency of testing may have something to do with Otay Mesa’s elevated infection rate. At Monday’s hearing, authorities said 119 of 171, or 70 percent, of detainees tested at Otay Mesa were positive. ICE says only that it has tested 705 detainees nationwide, without breaking testing down by detention center.

The first positive case at Otay Mesa was a guard, whose test result was announced March 31. The facility is designed to hold up to 1,970 ICE detainees and U.S. Marshals Service inmates but has lowered its count in recent weeks.

As of April 26, it held 662 immigration detainees and 325 Marshals Service inmates. Dozens are being released this week under a court order.

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