Image via Shutterstock Otay Mesa Detention Center
Image via Shutterstock

Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia and his sisters came to the U.S. with their mother in 1980 during the El Salvador’s civil war, and he was the only one unable to obtain a green card.

A 57-year-old man at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in California became the first detainee to die from complications of COVID-19 while in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. 

Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia was hospitalized for a little over a week when he died. He and his sisters came from El Salvador with their mother in 1980 during the country’s civil war, and he was the only one unable to obtain a green card.

Escobar Mejia had been held at Otay Mesa since January. In the ensuing months, the facility became the biggest hot spot for coronavirus infections among immigration detention centers nationwide, with 202 confirmed cases at last count. A total of 10 ICE employees at the Otay Mesa facility have tested positive for COVID-19, out of 39 nationwide. About 30,000 people are being held in the centers across the U.S.

Detainees at Otay Mesa, a privately run facility owned by CoreCivic Inc., have complained that the center did not provide adequate protective measures against the coronavirus and had sub-par conditions generally. Escobar Mejia, whose foot had been amputated due to diabetic complications, was put in solitary confinement for participating in a hunger strike over the facility’s conditions.

Anthony Alexandre, another detainee at Otay Mesa, said he last saw Escobar Mejia struggling to breathe in the general population pod before being transferred to the hospital.

“Why did they wait for him to get so sick that he was gasping for air?” Alexandre said. “I’m afraid if the governor doesn’t do something soon, we are doomed.”

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The U.S. has been deporting thousands of infected immigrants back to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Foreign officials have said detainees arrive visibly sick and have asked the Department of Homeland Security to test them beforehand, but DHS has not agreed to it. Guatemala’s health minister called the United States the “Wuhan of the Americas.”

Immigrant advocates and medical industry experts have been pushing for the release of detainees for weeks. Two contracted medical experts for the Department of Homeland Security wrote a letter to members of Congress in March warning that outbreaks in detention centers could pose a “tinderbox scenario.” They warned of the risk the virus poses not only to detainees but to the general population, who could also be affected by exposures in ICE facilities.

In April, the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego filed a class-action lawsuit against ICE and CoreCivic Inc., demanding they lower the number of people held at Otay Mesa to make it less crowded and help contain the spread of infection. Currently, the center is designed to house 1,970 detainees.

The ACLU sent out the following statement regarding Escobar Mejia’s death:

“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.”