This Is What It’s Like To Have A Loved One In ICE Detention During A Pandemic

Three women describe trying to keep their families afloat as the coronavirus threatens their husbands behind bars.

Catalina’s husband was arrested alongside nearly 700 other people in a massive ICE raid on food processing plants in Mississippi last summer. Marisa’s husband was on the way home from a construction job in Florida. ICE agents surprised Natalia’s husband two months ago during his routine immigration check-in with ISAP, a program that had been monitoring his whereabouts since he entered the U.S. without documents in 2018.

With the coronavirus spreading like wildfire in U.S. detention facilities, the three women have been worried and outraged for weeks over the lack of protection for their loved ones in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Though less than 2% of immigration detainees across the country had been tested for the coronavirus, 60% of those test results had come back positive as of April 21, the Miami Herald reported.

Catalina’s husband is in a Louisiana detention facility with seven confirmed COVID-19 cases at last count, though the numbers ICE reports often lag far behind actual cases. Last month, ICE admitted that 350 detainees had been exposed to the coronavirus at Krome Processing Center in Miami, where Marisa’s husband is still imprisoned. He told her more than a week ago that he had a fever.

Despite a national movement to release people in detention facilities of all kinds, ICE had freed fewer than 700 immigrants as of mid-April. (After her interview with HuffPost, Natalia’s husband was one of them, and he rejoined his family on April 3.) Nearly 30,000 people were still in ICE detention as of April 25. Detainees are continuing to stage protests and hunger strikes, and their family members and allies outside are increasing the legal and political pressure on ICE to let more people go. In light of recent court rulings, Catalina and fellow activists are pushing for the release of her husband, Baldomero Orozco Juarez, on the basis of his chronic kidney problems.

Meanwhile, the three women told HuffPost about becoming their families’ lone providers and raising young children struggling to understand their fathers’ incarceration during a global pandemic. Marisa was a housekeeper, Natalia worked at a beauty salon and Marisa sold food — but because of the coronavirus, none of them could keep working. They’ve been relying on help from their churches, generous strangers, activists and fellow immigrants who are fighting beside them to free the people in ICE detention. Here’s what they want you to know about their experiences.

Responses in Spanish and Portuguese have been translated, condensed and edited. Marisa and Catalina’s real names were changed at their request to protect their identities.

Marisa, 33, from Honduras

“Ruben was the one who paid the rent, and Ruben’s in jail.”

Ruben was arrested about two months ago; I don’t remember the exact date. He’s in Krome Processing Center [in Miami]. They arrested him while he was leaving work [in construction]; he was going home to where he lives in Panama City, which is six hours from where we live here in Louisiana. He was leaving work with a co-worker and the police stopped him, asked for his driver’s license, and since he doesn’t have one, they arrested him.

We have two kids; a 12-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl. Right now, we’re having a really hard time here. We have to pay rent, and here in the state of Louisiana, it’s not like other states [that have bans on evictions due to the coronavirus]. The owner of the house always calls me and says I owe her two months’ rent. Last month, she called and threatened that she was going to kick me out. I have two kids, and there’s no work; I work in housekeeping and the hotels are closed.

Ruben was the one who paid the rent, and Ruben’s in jail. My mom is here, an older woman in her 60s who has diabetes. We’re having a really hard time right now.

He calls me by telephone. Sometimes it’s really difficult because you have to add money for extra minutes, and since I’m not working, I don’t have money right now. Ruben is worried because they’ve already had patients there in Krome with symptoms of coronavirus, like a fever. Ruben called me just this morning and said he’s feeling bad and has a fever, and he doesn’t know anything and he’s worried because they still have him locked up.

They’re all in the same place. You’re supposed to keep your distance from people to avoid contagion, but in Krome, they aren’t doing that. The prisoners are all mixed together. And there are contagious people, there are people with the virus and people they’ve taken out of there who were sick.

The first week or two weeks Ruben was there, they didn’t have any masks; they had nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. Then they started to see the news and realize what was going on and they started to give out masks, but it’s not the same. They don’t do it every day like they should. You’re not supposed to use masks multiple times; you have to disinfect them.

The prisoners don’t know anything. Sometimes, they can watch the news, but one day, Ruben said that they didn’t let them see it, they turned off the news. But they have to take care of the prisoners. These aren’t people who have killed. The only crime the father of my children committed was not having a document. He’s not a murderer or a criminal.

Abolish ICE Colorado, Sanctuary for All, American Friends Committee and Never Again Action take part in a car protest to call for the release of detained immigrants at the GEO Detention Center on April 3, 2020, in Aurora, Colorado.
Abolish ICE Colorado, Sanctuary for All, American Friends Committee and Never Again Action take part in a car protest to call for the release of detained immigrants at the GEO Detention Center on April 3, 2020, in Aurora, Colorado.

Natalia, 33, from Brazil

What’s really difficult is what happened before my husband was imprisoned.”

My husband has been detained since Feb. 13. They allege that he was detained because he had an order for deportation in 2005, when he tried to enter the country but didn’t manage. Right there during the crossing, they picked him up, he was imprisoned 60 days if I’m not mistaken, and then they deported him.

So, when we went to ISAP to do the check-ins that we’re asked to do, they arrested him there, saying that he already had a deportation order issued more than 10 days ago, but we weren’t informed of that. So we went there for the normal ISAP visit, and there, they had some people from immigration who took him by surprise.

I was in a state of desperation because we had been doing everything they asked, we didn’t miss a single visit, we let them come to our home. It was a very big shock. It was very sad. They ask the maximum cooperation from us, and they could have at least told us that he had a deportation order for us to ask a lawyer for advice about what to do. And they didn’t tell us.

“The only crime the father of my children committed was not having a document.”

I have three kids. They are 11, 9, and the baby just turned 4 in March. What’s really difficult is what happened before my husband was imprisoned. He was the only one working, and then I got a job in a beauty salon because that was my profession in Brazil. I went to work in the salon at the end of the week, Thursdays and Fridays, and left my little girl with a babysitter who lives across the street from me. And one day when I left her there, at the house of that babysitter, a sister [“Auntie”] and brother-in-law [“Uncle”] also live at that house. And my baby is very intelligent and speaks clearly. And she told me that Uncle had put his hands on her genitals. She told me horrible things that it’s impossible to believe a child is talking about such things. I left that place straight away, I would never use that babysitter again, and took my daughter to the police to do the police report.

They scheduled an interview with my daughter on Feb. 13, the same day my husband was arrested. So he was going to go with me to the interview, but he was arrested, he couldn’t make it, and I was desperate, crying, and I still had to take my daughter to that interview because we’d already been waiting for a month. So we got there, they took my daughter aside, and they didn’t let me take part in the interview with her. They took her alone, took her to a room with four people she’d never seen before — a translator, two professionals who I think were psychologists, and an investigator. And as far as they informed me, they had asked her whether someone had touched her, and she had said “no.”

But obviously she said that — she didn’t know those people. She had a hard time even telling me. So the investigator closed the case and said they were going to provide a psychologist and psychiatrist for her, but that also didn’t happen. So I find myself in a situation where my daughter suffered abuse, where other children run the same risk as my daughter; and I don’t want that for my children, I don’t want that for the child of any other mother, because it hurts too much.

That kind of person should be imprisoned, but instead, the person who’s imprisoned is my husband, who never did anything. And that’s revolting. I don’t have work, I can’t trust anybody to leave my daughter with, I sent a letter to the ICE officials explaining the situation, and they aren’t moved by anything.

When my husband was arrested, he had money in his wallet that he’d received from his job. It was the money that we use to pay our electricity bill, so he had that. And he was able to call me using that money. To call us, there are times when he puts in $2, there are times when he puts in $3, we talk about 7-8 minutes, that’s the length of the call. It’s what he told me, right? He can’t say very much, the connection is poor and there’s an echo. We almost can’t have a real conversation.

He says nothing is being done [about the coronavirus] and he’s even afraid because he says there are so many people. In his cell, there are four people, and inside [his sector] there’s more than 40 or 50. He says at 8 a.m. they open the doors and everyone goes out and eats in a cafeteria with tables and they have a set amount of time to eat. After that, they go back in the cell, and there’s a schedule to go out again later. I asked if he was using masks or if they were doing anything and he said no. He said everything is continuing as normal. Nobody communicates anything about it. He’s very worried and also worried about us.

A residential pod at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Tacoma, Washington. Immigrant detainees across the country say they lack adequate protective equipment and cleaning supplies to prevent the spread of the coronavirus behind bars.
A residential pod at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Tacoma, Washington. Immigrant detainees across the country say they lack adequate protective equipment and cleaning supplies to prevent the spread of the coronavirus behind bars.

Catalina, 37, from Guatemala

“My children need their father.”

My husband was detained on Aug. 7, 2019. He was detained in the raids. He wasn’t stealing, he wasn’t doing anything bad, he was just working, struggling for my family because he’s a good father, and he’s the one who works for the family, for my children. He was working in a plant in Mississippi.

Now he’s in Catahoula, Louisiana. And that has him desperate because like many people, they detained him back then and it has really affected him to be there. He’s gotten very sick, and I’m worried about him because since he’s been in jail he’s been in the hospital, in the emergency room, two times. And I worry about his health because they told him he has kidney problems and they’re not working well.

And we worry here, my children and I, because during this time, I lost my job here [as a food vendor] and I’m not working and I have two children [ages 6 and 2; both U.S. citizens] to raise, and I can’t go out anyway to look for work. My son has asthma, and with everything that’s happened, he, the older one, is getting psychological therapy. And my girl, the younger one, has a developmental delay and she gets therapy, but they haven’t been able to continue because of the virus. She can’t talk and barely walks, and she was getting therapy before my husband was taken away.

I was also seeing specialists because I have eye problems and they told me I needed cornea transplants, and we were planning what to do because I needed an operation. And all this happened and I still haven’t gone. I need my husband to go with me to the doctor because I can’t drive, because of my eye problems. My children need their father because I realize they are really suffering and they always ask about him.

Now he can’t call me, he said he doesn’t have money to call. On Friday, he called me like a minute and told me, “I don’t have a way to call you to know how you are,” he said. And I asked him how he was and he told me he was worried.

I was last able to really speak with him a week ago. And he told me he was worried because there are many sick people and was like, “I don’t know what they’re gonna do with us, if they’re going to let us out or not,” he said, because there are so many sick people and no protection. They don’t give them things to protect themselves, for example, masks and gloves. Supposedly they say they should try to keep their distance, but they can’t keep their distance there. He says they use the same bathrooms, “We almost sleep together,” he says, 100 people sleep in one room, he says. No, he says there’s no space at all. And it makes me too worried that he’s there.

The last time he went [to the hospital] was almost 2 months ago, I think, and they took him out of jail and sent him to the emergency room. He was there two days, it was the third day when he called me. And when he was in the hospital, he told me, the virus had entered the jail.

He says they just remove people, and they don’t see some people again … I asked if they were doing tests and no, he said for example that sometimes they see a doctor, they already took him out and told him they were going to look at him because his back was hurting, he said, but they haven’t told him anything about that. “And since it hurts me a lot, I tell them to give me medicine or something,” he says, “and so what do they give you?” I say, and he says “they give me Ibuprofen for the pain.” Just ibuprofen to calm him a bit but no special medicine. It’s difficult to hear him because there’s an echo, and it breaks my heart to hear him and also he’s worried about us, just as we are for him.

What I want is support so that these people who haven’t committed any crimes — my husband’s only crime was to cross the border, and aside from that, he hasn’t committed any crime. He’s not a thief, he’s not a rapist, he hasn’t done bad things in this country, he was simply working and struggling for my family. I want help so that they can go free, and for people to support us so they’re released. Because it’s not fair that they’re imprisoned during this pandemic. And we don’t want them not to see their families and to die there because of this pandemic, we want help so they can be freed and together with their families.

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