A few weeks into his detention at the Karnes County Residential Center, southeast of San Antonio, Josué began to hear bits of news reports about the coronavirus on TV in the common areas. He had arrived in early February with his four-year-old son, after a month-long journey from Honduras. They had been traveling on foot or by train with little to no access to the news and had no knowledge of the approaching pandemic.
There were only a handful of cases in the United States during Josué’s first weeks in detention. But as he started to hear about the coronavirus with increasing frequency on the news—along with messaging about social distancing and sanitary precautions—he grew more anxious. With roughly seven hundred people detained at Karnes in close quarters, it became apparent early on that keeping a safe distance from others would be almost impossible.
For years, detention centers across the country have been hit especially hard by contagious disease outbreaks. At the beginning of the pandemic, legal and medical advocates started sounding alarms about the tight quarters and limited health care in detention centers and called for the release of asylum seekers to sponsors or family members so they could quarantine safely. Today, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in detention facilities nationwide has risen to more than 1,100. As of May 21, there are 352 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas detention facilities, up from 99 cases at the beginning of the month.
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Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have taken steps to reduce the spread of the virus by suspending family visits to detention facilities and housing detainees with fever and/or respiratory symptoms away from the general population. But these precautions have done little to assuage the concerns of Josué and others. The stories of Josué and Philippe, another man detained at Karnes, reveal what life has been like in detention during the coronavirus crisis.
The names of the migrants in this story have been changed for their safety. ICE did not respond to requests for comment on conditions inside Karnes, but the agency reports no confirmed cases at the facility.
When Josué and his son left their home of La Entrada, a small town in the foothills of Honduras’s western highlands, Josué was apprehensive. He knew traveling to the United States would be difficult and risky, especially with a young child in tow, but he wasn’t making enough as a carpenter to support his family, and local gangs had begun extorting him.
Josué and his son surrendered themselves to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in early February near Rio Grande City, where they were placed in what migrants call a hielera (a frigid cell where asylum seekers are typically held before being transferred to a detention center) for three days. Josué had a pounding headache, and he and his son found it hard to ignore how hungry they were.
When they were transferred to Karnes, things went from bad to worse as concerns over the pandemic mounted week after week. Soon, Josué says, there were individuals who were sick, and new people were being transferred in from other detention facilities and countries with confirmed outbreaks. The uncertainty made some assume the worst, as fellow detainees who coughed throughout the night weren’t yet able to get tested. Neither Josué nor his son had COVID-19 symptoms, but Josué was continually frustrated that he couldn’t do much to protect his son. They ate and slept in close quarters with other detainees.
“The guards did hardly anything,” Josué says. “There were people there who we knew were sick, but the guards would never say anything to us or explain what was going on.”
Days passed without any acknowledgement of the coronavirus from the guards in the facility, Josué says. Instead, as tensions began to rise among detainees, the guards who work at the facility took away access to the TVs. Though it’s difficult for detainees to protest in detention, Josué says, several families attempted to go on hunger strikes or raised their concerns about the lack of information, but they were quickly separated and kept in their rooms for the majority of the day. In the nearby South Texas Family Residential Center in Pearsall, a riot broke out in late March, and guards pepper-sprayed detainees after several of them refused to return to their beds when they began voicing their fears about coronavirus, ICE confirmed.
The medical care in the Karnes facility was also concerning. Even if detainees developed symptoms suddenly, Josué says, they were often told to put in a formal request before seeing the doctor, which lengthened the time before they received treatment.
Philippe, another Karnes detainee who was recently released along with his wife and daughter, traveled to the United States from Haiti. He has an underlying heart condition. His treatment in detention left him with little faith that he and his family would be adequately cared for if they did contract COVID-19. During visits to the doctor, he was repeatedly told there was nothing wrong with him. In the days before his family was released, Philippe felt his chest pain worsening, and his heart began beating faster and faster. He lost consciousness and was diagnosed with a throat infection at a nearby hospital.
“It was hell,” he said later. “It was humiliating trying to get help because the [officers] would accuse you of making it up. The officers would antagonize us and try to get us upset, so we tried not to react.”
It wasn’t until they were about to be released, in late March, that Philippe says he began noticing the officers wearing gloves or taking any other sanitary precautions.
Philippe is now in North Carolina awaiting his meeting with a judge to adjudicate his asylum claim—immigration courts are currently closed due to the pandemic—and says his daughter seems to have bounced back emotionally. He and his wife, however, have struggled to shake the anxiety they felt each day over the prospect of being deported.
Josué, who was released in late April and is awaiting his asylum hearing in Mississippi, says his son is still struggling to adjust to life after detention. He had been a happy, sociable child before they left Honduras. But now he has withdrawn into himself, not wanting to speak much or interact with other children his age. Their first few days out of the facility, he didn’t want to speak at all. Josué says that despite the experience, he knows they had no other choice but to leave Honduras.
“The things that happen to you in detention, they mark you,” he said. “They stay with you forever. All of the people in there were fighting hard every day to keep their spirits up because we all know why we came here. We came fearing murder, danger for our children, and for that reason we kept fighting.”