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5,000 People Contract COVID-19 While In ICE Custody, Including This Father Of 5

Hilder Lainez-Alvarez and his wife with their five children.
Hilder Lainez-Alvarez and his wife with their five children.

Jessica and her five children haven’t seen Hilder Lainez-Alvarez — their husband and father — in several months. He’s being detained at the Port Isabel Detention Center in the Rio Grande Valley.

Jessica agreed to speak with TPR if her full name wasn’t used.

Lainez-Alvarez was transferred to that Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility after being held at the neighboring El Valle Detention Center in Willacy County. He was placed into removal proceedings in February and an immigration judge granted him voluntary departure. Lainez-Alvarez departed back to his home country of Nicaragua in March, where his wife said he was almost killed. He was apprehended at the border in May after trying to reenter the U.S.

“When Border Patrol found him back in early May and they broke his hand, fractured his arm, they did a botched surgery,” she said. “He’s already had pus coming out of his hand due to the lack of medical treatment in the facility.”

A few weeks ago, Jessica said she got a scary call from her husband in detention.

“He said, ‘Jesse I want to tell you something. I have really bad news and I want you to be strong and you’re doing the best you can. You’re a good mom,’” she said recalling the conversation she had with him. “Take care of my kids, but I have this virus. I have COVID-19.”

More than 5,000 people in ICE detention centers across the country have contracted COVID-19 and there are more than 600 active cases.

During the pandemic ICE officials have released some medically vulnerable detainees, but Jessica is struggling to get her sick husband out of ICE detention.

She said on top of having COVID, her husband acquired injuries from when he was apprehended at the border and said he also has asthma.

“I was so angry and I was so upset and I was so disgusted that it led to this point and this should have never even happened,” said Jessica.

Hilder Lainez-Alvarez holding two of his five children.
Credit Provided
Hilder Lainez-Alvarez holding two of his five children.

Jessica reached out to an organization called Freedom For Immigrants. They filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Liberties and Civil Rights and asked them to investigate and ensure Lainez-Alvarez received immediate medical care.

“It has been over two months since border patrol broke Mr. Lainez-Alvarez’s arm,” said part of the complaint that was filed earlier this year. “As a direct result of medical neglect in detention he suffers from acute pain, has difficulty in performing basic daily functions and faces the loss of his right hand usage permanently.” 

They also arranged for a doctor, Kate Sugarman, to evaluate his medical records.

“It looks like he needs a corrective surgery to correct the surgery that they botched, but in order for someone to properly heal from surgery they need extremely clean conditions. They need a lot of rehab, physical occupational therapy after the surgery and none of this was provided to him after his first surgery,” she said. “So, we know that they are incapable of providing him with the conditions to heal properly, but in addition, under ICE custody he is now COVID infected.”

Sugarman sent her findings to the warden at the El Valle detention Center and DHS to support the complaint filed by Freedom for Immigrants.

“Detention facilities, like the jails and prisons in which they are housed, are often crowded and unsanitary, have poor ventilation, lack adequate access to hygienic materials such as soap and water or hand sanitizers, and fail to adhere to recognized standards for prevention, screening, and containment of transmittable diseases,” said part of Sugarman’s findings that she sent to DHS.

“ICE has discretion to release anyone in their custody, pretty much, so there’s really no reason why Hilder should be detained,” said Cynthia Galaz with Freedom For Immigrants. “He has a particularly strong case because he has a strong community outside. Doctors have been advocating for him. There really is no reason why ICE is detaining him.”

Freedom For Immigrants has been calling for Lainez-Alvarez’s release because they say ICE has proven itself incapable to take care of him.

“Unfortunately Hilder’s case is not an isolated incident and I wouldn’t say that medical neglect is rare in detention,” said Galaz. “It is particularly egregious that he was harmed by the government.”

In a statement ICE officials said, “All detainees in ICE custody are provided necessary medical care and attention, any allegation to the contrary is simply not true.”

However, Dr. Kate Sugarman told TPR that ICE did not treat Lainez-Alvarez properly when they had the opportunity to do so.

Immigrant rights organizations also have criticized the transfers of detainees from one facility to another during the pandemic because they say that is one way COVID is spreading in ICE detention.

ICE said in a statement to TPR that there are many reasons why they transfer detainees, some of the reasons are to “prevent overcrowding”, or to move a detainee, “to a more appropriate detention facility based on the detainee's individual circumstances and risk factors.”

Norma Herrera is with the organization RGV Equal Voice Network. She’s been in contact with dozens of detainees at the Port Isabel Detention Center where Lainez-Alvarez is now.

“There are some folks who have been released because they have underlying medical vulnerabilities to COVID and then there are folks who have been transferred to other places and then there are many people who have just been deported,” Herrera said. “When you sort of look at the big picture it seems kind of arbitrary who gets to be released into the community, who gets transferred and who gets deported.”

Jessica said she’s still waiting to hear back about whether or not her husband will be released. She said her kids often cry and ask when their dad is coming home.

“His kids miss him,” she said. “Hopefully we can go along with our dreams of making a business together and, you know, we had plans.”

In addition to the support from Freedom For Immigrants, Jessica is also working with an attorney. 

Cynthia Galaz said Jessica’s husband has received some physical therapy, but it hasn’t been consistent and she’s still concerned about him because, she said, ICE has a history of medical neglect that has caused the deaths of some detainees.

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at Reynaldo@TPR.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos

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Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at reynaldo@tpr.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos