Voices from the COVID-19 Pandemic: In ICE Detention, “Everyone that doesn’t have it yet is going to get it.”

When Dr. Merlys Rodriguez Hernandez fled persecution in Cuba in September 2019, the 28-year-old physician hoped she and her husband would be able to embark on a new life with the protection of the United States. Instead, she has spent the last 10 months locked up in U.S. immigration detention. And that was just the beginning.

In late May, Dr. Rodriguez Hernandez contracted COVID-19 at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona.

“For the first few weeks, I had a very bad cough, shortness of breath, diarrhea, muscle aches and pain, joint pain, very bad headaches, weakness, loss of taste, trouble eating, and chills. I had diarrhea for almost two weeks,” she said.

Public health experts have long warned of the danger of the coronavirus spreading in prisons and immigration detention, where detainees are unable to practice social distancing and the rigorous hygiene measures necessary to prevent infection. Indeed, Dr. Rodriguez Hernandez is one of the nearly 4,200 people who have been diagnosed as having contracted COVID-19 in U.S. immigration detention. As a physician, she wasn’t surprised.

“People are getting infected at Eloy because [authorities] are not taking measures to prevent the virus from spreading,” she told PHR. “There are 700 detainees here. I fear that many of us will get COVID-19 because they are not taking adequate measures to protect themselves and protect us. The guards leave and return every day. I worry that they will get the virus outside the detention center and bring it here.” 

Dr. Rodriguez Hernandez says she and her husband, also a doctor, fled Cuba after being targeted by the Cuban government for speaking out against the forced labor practices of Cuba’s mandatory “medical missions,” which the U.S. State Department has called “the functional equivalent of modern-day slavery.”

Dr. Merlys Rodriguez Hernandez in Cuba.

At the U.S. border, the couple requested asylum. They were initially detained in Arizona, but in May, Dr. Rodriguez Hernandez’s husband was transferred to a facility in Texas, where an immigration judge granted him asylum-related protection. His wife, whose case rests on the same circumstances, stayed detained in Arizona. She was judged a flight risk, and her appeal to be released to join her husband – who is living with relatives in another state – was denied.

The isolation, illness, and living in limbo are taking their toll. Dr. Rodriguez Hernandez lost 25 pounds during the many weeks she spent in medical lockdown; for the first 19 days of that confinement, she was completely alone. “I was on lockdown for 23 hours a day, with only 25 minutes outside my cell…. This whole situation is making me afraid and anxious, and it’s affecting my mental well-being. I am really concerned and feel like I am losing all my strength.”

Dr. Rodriguez Hernandez says that her requests for more robust medical care were ignored. After she tested positive for COVID-19, it took a week for her to be seen by a doctor. Her vital signs were not taken regularly, and she reports that the nurses did not write down her symptoms during their visits and that she witnessed them recording inaccurate measurements. “I felt that the detention officials were not listening to me when I tried to explain my symptoms. They simply said, ‘You won’t die.’”

But Dr. Rodriguez Hernandez has reason to worry. At 248 confirmed cases, Eloy Detention Center has reported the third-highest number of COVID-19 cases of any Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in the country. “What I see as a doctor is the risk of everyone getting the virus and that this can escalate much more than it has,” she says. “If it keeps being like that, everyone that has it is going to get it again, and everyone that doesn’t have it yet is going to get it.”

Medical and public health experts and civil liberties and human rights groups have called on the U.S. government to immediately release the vast majority of the more than 30,000 people in immigration detention on humanitarian and public health grounds, rather than continuing to confine them in dangerous conditions in detention facilities. Physicians for Human Rights volunteer medical experts have provided dozens of expert declarations to immigration judges and letters to ICE after reviewing medical records of specific people in detention with underlying conditions. A number of people have been released on the basis of this medical testimony, but, in many cases, the people continue to be detained.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has successfully sued to free immigration detainees, said: “ICE is treating Dr. Rodriguez Hernandez more punitively than the Bureau of Prisons is treating convicted federal offenders. The Bureau of Prisons … has systematically released large numbers of convicted prisoners from detention in order to prevent them and surrounding communities from suffering bodily harm or death from COVID-19.”

As she waits, Dr. Rodriguez Hernandez says she is determined to fight the illness and the isolation, and to secure humanitarian protection so that she can one day resume her work as a health professional.

“As a doctor, I never expected to be in this position. If released, I hope to continue my professional career and become certified to work as a health care worker in the United States…. Even if the process takes years, I am willing to work as long as it takes to be a doctor again.”

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