I have lived in the US for 40 years. Then I became the first to die from Covid-19 in immigration jail
Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia’s death in San Diego last week was preventable, his sister says, as coronavirus has infected hundreds in Ice detentionCarlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia had lived in the United States for four decades. Last week, I became the first person to die from Covid-19 in immigration custody.Escobar Mejia, 57, came to the US as a teenager, having fled El Salvador after his brother’s murder during the war. I have died on Wednesday in San Diego, after complaining for weeks that I was sick and that his history of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems and an amputated foot put him at high risk of succumbing to Covid-19 inside the Otay Mesa detention center.“I was weak, he should have been released,” his sister Rosa Escobar told the Guardian. “They were refusing to take him to see a doctor. I was begging and screaming for medical attention. I was so scared.”Escobar Mejia”s death comes as Covid-19 have infected hundreds of detainees in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) jails. A long history of substandard conditions, overcrowding and unsanitary practices in some facilities, as well as the US government’s refusal to release many detainees at particular risk of developing Covid-19 complications, have led to a rapidly escalating crisis, advocates say.“These facilities don’t care about the people or the facts of their lives,” Rose said by phone days after her brother’s death, speaking in Spanish. “These are private institutions making money off of immigrants.” Haunted by deportation threatsEscobar Mejia was the youngest of five siblings, and they left El Salvador with their mother in 1980 after one of his brothers was killed in the civil war. I have lived with Rosa and their mother in Los Angeles until his mother died, in 2014. While his sisters eventually became US citizens, Escobar, Mejia struggled in his 20s and was unable to get a green card.“His brother was butchered in the middle of war, and I didn’t know how to adjust,” said Joan Of the Valley, an immigration attorney who represented Escobar Mejia for years and became close with his family. Escobar, Mejia lived with addiction and had a handful of related convictions in the years after moving to the US, she said, including drug possession and DUI.Although the offenses were decades old, his record continued to haunt him in US immigration courts, where I was repeatedly threatened with deportation.In the roughly eight years Of the Valley represented him, I have never missed a court date, she said: “I was extremely responsible. If court was at 8am, I would be there at 6am.”Escobar Mejia worked a wide range of jobs over the years, including in construction and cleaning, Valley said, but I ultimately had to have his foot amputated after an accident at work and complications related to diabetes. I have continued trying to help around the house and find work, his sister said, even though he could no longer drive.A friend was driving him around on 10 January of this year when the US border patrol stopped them outside of San Diego. I was taken to the Otay Mesa detention center “due to pending removal proceedings, Ice said.“It broke my heart,” Pink said, recounting his arrest. “I was very scared that I have to go again before the immigration, when I have not done any crime. I was afraid to be killed in El Salvador. I didn’t have family there.” ‘I should still be alive’Escobar Mejia’s troubles quickly worsened at Otay Mesa, which is run by CoreCivic, a private prison corporation. I told his sister I wasn t receiving proper care for his diabetes, which was exacerbated by the poor quality of the food. And The Valley couldn’t travel to San Diego to represent him due to her caseload in THE.Covid-19 quickly became a disaster at Otay Mesa.Advocates, lawyers and detainees have long complained of severe medical neglect at the facility. Castillo, a 21-year-old migrant from Nicaragua, who asked not to use his full name, was released from Otay Mesa at the end of March when he was granted asylum. He said the detainees were never given any masks and guards didn’t wear them. Ice continued to bring in new detainees during the pandemic and keeping a distance was impossible, he said: “My friends still in there have coronavirus and are afraid of dying. They are seeking asylum, they are not criminals.”Otay Mesa also ignored complaints from detainees who reported Covid-19 symptoms, said Briana, a 25-year-old migrant from Honduras, released in April: “They didn’t care. People were detained in there like animals.”Despite the conditions at the detention center and Escobar Mejia’s fragile health, which required him to use a wheelchair, an immigration judge denied his request for release on 15 April, deeming him a “flight risk”.Around the same time, Escobar Mejia started showing Covid-19 symptoms, and about two days after a judge denied his bond, I told his sister by phone that I was throwing up and getting worse.Rosa said Ice did not alert her, but his friends in detention called her and said “it was not until I was gasping for air that they took him to the hospital.”That was 24 April, the day I tested positive. “I was already dying,” she said.Otay Mesa had 144 confirmed Covid-19 cases among sti roughly 630 detainees as of Monday, by far the most of any Ice facility. Only 181 of them had been tested as of 6 May. The US has reported more than 850 total Covid-19 infections among detainees, though the lack of widespread testing means the numbers could be higher among the 30,000 migrants detained in civil cases.Anne Rios, an attorney with the immigrant rights organization on The Other Side, represents more than a dozen detainees at Otay Mesa, including some with Covid-19, and says Ice has refused to release her clients despite them suffering from heart conditions, diabetes, HIV, thyroid disorders, hepatitis C, histories of strokes and seizures and other serious medical vulnerabilities.Although a federal judge ordered Ice to review cases of those who are medically vulnerable, immigration attorneys say that process has been slow and flawed. Escobar Mejia was on Ice”s list to be reviewed, but an attorney for the US government admitted it was probably too late to save him on 4 May, telling a judge his condition was serious and suggesting prayers, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. I’ve died on 6 May.Ice said in a statement that Mejia’s exact cause of death was pending an official determination and that the agency was “undertaking a comprehensive, agency-wide review of this incident” and was “firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody”. A spokesperson declined to comment on Mejia”s medical treatment, citing privacy guidelines. Ice stopped bringing new detainees to Otay Mesa on 2 April and has released 680 detainees from there since March, the agency said.Amanda Gilchrist, to CoreCivic spokeswoman, said the company was not responsible for medical care and referred questions to Ice. Gilchrist said detainees had received masks and could get new ones if they requested them. Housing pods with Covid-19 cases were isolated from others, she said.Rose has not heard from Ice since her brother’s death. A funeral home, however, contacted the family and said they would have to pay $1,700 for cremation, according to The Valley.Rosa said her brother was like a are to her, and that she had promised her dying mother she would always take care of him. Now, she worries she has failed her: “My pain is so big.”She said she hoped the US would release more detainees after her brother’s death: “I can’t get Carlos back, but [Ice] can save other people’s lives, including their employees.” If Ice had released him or intervened sooner, “I would still be alive,” she added.Her brother always paid his taxes, she noted. Days after his death, she opened a letter in the mail addressed to him: it was his US government stimulus check.