If there’s one thing the men locked inside the Otay Mesa Detention Center want the world to know, it’s that Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia didn’t need to die. The 57-year-old passed away in a southern California hospital on May 6, becoming the first person in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody to lose their life to Covid-19. The men who knew him fear that he won’t be the last.
“This could have been avoided,” said Oscar Navarez, a Mexican national detained at Otay Mesa. The for-profit facility is currently home to the largest coronavirus outbreak in immigration detention in the country by far, with 155 confirmed cases of infected detainees and 11 cases among detention personnel, according to ICE’s running tally. Navarez is one of four men housed at the facility who, in audio interviews obtained by The Intercept, chose to speak out about the conditions that led to Escobar Mejia’s death. “I need people to know what happened here,” Navarez said. “He was our friend.”
From the moment the coronavirus began spreading in the United States, advocates and experts warned that ICE’s network of detention centers posed a serious problem — medical experts at the Department of Homeland Security called the facilities a “tinderbox” for the spread of the disease — and said they expected detainees to die absent changes in ICE detention policies and priorities. As one of the most visible arms of the Trump administration’s ultra-hardline immigration agenda, ICE has resisted those changes.
Because people in ICE custody are held for civil rather than criminal violations, the agency could release them at any time. Though ICE has made limited releases in some areas, including the Otay Mesa Detention Center, it continues to hold more than 26,600 people, many in for-profit facilities with abysmal health and safety records. The agency has tested only a fraction of those in its custody — 2,394 people in total, as of Saturday. Among that population, more than half, 1,201 individuals, have tested positive for Covid-19. An additional 44 ICE employees at detention centers have also tested positive.
In place of wide-scale releases, ICE has adopted a practice of consolidating people suspected of having Covid-19 in designated areas and waiting to see if they get better or worse. Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia was one of those people.
The men who were with Escobar Mejia in his final days say they did everything they could to alert ICE and CoreCivic, the private prison corporation that runs Otay Mesa, of his worsening condition, and that the officials responsible for his well-being failed to take those alerts seriously. Escobar Mejia had lived in the U.S. for 40 years. In addition to being locked in a coronavirus hotbed where social distancing is impossible, he had a range of underlying health conditions that exacerbated his vulnerability to the virus, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart problems. His right foot was partially amputated, and he used a wheelchair.
The men in his unit believe that if Escobar Mejia had been taken directly to a hospital when the seriousness of his illness first became obvious, rather than being quarantined in a unit for infected detainees he might still be alive today. “He complained many times,” said José Antonio Vidal Basa, a second detainee currently being held at Otay Mesa, adding that the other men in the unit would sometimes wheel Escobar Mejia to a nurse looking for help. “He’s feeling bad,” Vidal Basa recalled telling medical staff. “He never comes out of his room and he’s always sick. Can we please do something about it?”
Escobar Mejia was given ibuprofen to treat his symptoms, the men in his unit recalled.
Vidal Basa, who also contracted Covid-19 and was only recently released from the pod where ICE keeps infected detainees, said Escobar Mejia was routinely instructed to fill out a sick card, which in theory would set in motion a formal medical response from the facility. “He would sign it and they would bring him back — the same thing over and over again,” he said. “They would never do nothing about it.” Escobar Mejia was given ibuprofen to treat his symptoms, the men in his unit recalled. He was living on bologna sandwiches and crackers, the only meal detainees were given for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, said Tomas Enrique Castro Lopez. According to Castro Lopez, who took on the role of caretaker for Escobar Mejia inside the facility, virtually all kitchen staff preparing the food were eventually hit with the virus.
Escobar Meija came to the U.S. from El Salvador as a teenager in 1980. At the time, a wave of refugees was beginning to flee the country, hoping to escape a catastrophic civil war that featured the torture, disappearance, and death of tens of thousands of Salvadoran civilians, often at the hands of U.S.-backed death squads, and the displacement of more than a million others. At the outset of the conflict, Escobar Mejia’s brother was murdered, with family members suspecting that government forces were behind the killing. A few years later, when his sister narrowly avoided a massacre orchestrated by guerrilla fighters on the other side of the war, his mother decided to take her children — Escobar Mejia was the youngest of five — and flee north.
The family landed in Los Angeles. While Escobar Mejia’s siblings eventually obtained citizenship, he did not. He seemed to carry the trauma of the civil war into his adult life, his former attorney, Joan Del Valle, told The Intercept. He struggled with addiction and in the 1980s and early 1990s, received convictions for grand theft, possession of a controlled substance, receiving stolen property, and a DUI. Though the last of those convictions was in 1993, according to Del Valle, ICE nonetheless cited the decades-old cases in its statement announcing Escobar Mejia’s death.
Del Valle, a Los Angeles-based attorney, began representing Escobar Mejia in 2012 when he landed in ICE custody following a low-level drug arrest. The conviction was expunged, and Del Valle secured his release from immigration custody. She continued to represent him pro bono for the next eight years. During that time, Del Valle said, Escobar Mejia turned his life around. “I saw his change,” she said. He was the kind of client who not only showed up for all of his court hearings, she said, but arrived hours before they began to insure there were no problems.
Escobar Mejia lived in L.A. with his mother and one of his sisters, Rosa, with whom he shared a seemingly unbreakable bond. As the years went on, Del Valle said, she grew close to the family. Nothing in Escobar Mejia’s life was ever easy, she explained, but through it all he maintained a positivity that she found endearing. In 2014, Escobar Mejia’s mother died. He worked construction and other odd jobs to provide for Rosa who, increasingly, had become the center of his life. Last year, a work accident followed by an infection and several rounds of unsuccessful surgeries culminated in the amputation of his foot.
Because he had to start using a wheelchair, Escobar Mejia relied on others to drive him around. He was receiving one such ride when, this past January, he and a friend were pulled over by the Border Patrol outside San Diego. The pair were taken to Otay Mesa, where Escobar Mejia began a final losing battle to regain his freedom.
Following his detention in 2012, Escobar Mejia was placed in removal proceedings. He and Del Valle had been fighting the case, with a trial scheduled for this October. The timing and location of his January arrest would prove fatal. With more than 140 miles between her office in Los Angeles and the border detention center — and with the world’s leading public health experts later urging strict social distancing — Del Valle made a decision to hand his case off to a local attorney. “I was devastated when I had to withdraw,” she said. “I don’t have the manpower to have a case pro bono in San Diego when all my caseload is in Los Angeles — I’m a solo practitioner and single mom, I had no choice.”
Del Valle broke the news in person. She remembers how frail Escobar Mejia looked at the time. “I cried my whole day coming back to L.A.,” she said. “If I had the means, economically, I would have kept him.”
“I don’t know if he had thrown up or he spilled something, but he was so sick, he couldn’t even get up to clean it.”
Inside Otay Mesa, Escobar Mejia’s world was turned upside down. Simple things became a fight. It took a week just to obtain access to a wheelchair, Del Valle said. On April 15, nearly four months after his arrest, Escobar Mejia had a bond hearing before Judge Lee O’Connor. The judge fixated on his criminal record, specifically a domestic violence arrest in the 1990s. Del Valle was well-aware of the incident — Escobar Mejia was taken into custody in a case of mistaken identity and released without charge — but the longtime attorney was not in the courtroom that day.
O’Connor determined that the 57-year-old amputee, who had shown up to all of his previous hearings for the past eight years, who had four decades in the U.S. and could not drive himself around, was a “flight risk.” His bond was denied.
In the days that followed, Escobar Mejia’s health took a dramatic turn. Less than three weeks later, he was dead.
The weekend after the hearing, Escobar Mejia called his sister in desperation, Del Valle said, and told her that he was throwing up and suffering from headaches, and that his pleas to detention center officials to see a doctor were not being acknowledged. “Their officers were aware, fully aware, that he was not feeling well,” Del Valle said. Over the next six days, the men inside Otay Mesa noted that Esocbar Mejia was no longer leaving his room. He lay in bed, vomiting and clearly sick. “He was so sick and he kept complaining about it. He wouldn’t come out of the room,” Navarez said. “The last day that he was here in my pod, he was just lying on his bunk, there was liquid all over the floor, I don’t know if he had thrown up or he spilled something, but he was so sick, he couldn’t even get up to clean it.”
By that point, Escobar Mejia could barely speak, Navarez said. Rather than being taken to a hospital, Escobar Mejia was moved to a pod for detainees suspected of having Covid-19 — an indication that he was subjected to “cohorting,” the controversial measure ICE and its private detention partners have used in the worsening coronavirus outbreak in lieu of releasing detainees. “When they took him, they didn’t even take him to the hospital,” Navarez said. “His life could have probably been saved if they took him straight to the hospital.”
José Javier Malpica Perez, a Venezuelan man who had also tested positive for Covid-19, was with Escobar Mejia in the quarantined unit. He was the last detainee to speak to Escobar Mejia before he was hospitalized, providing English-to-Spanish translation for a detention center nurse. “We saw him in his room, he couldn’t breathe,” Malpica Perez recalled. He asked the nurse why Escobar Mejia hadn’t already been taken to the hospital. “He was already sick,” he said. “We told him, hey you got to get out of here, man.” When the decision was finally made to move Escobar Mejia to a hospital, Malpica Perez did what he could to provide encouragement. “I told him, go to the hospital,” he said. “You’re going to be better over there.”
Malpica Perez and the group of men he was quarantined with were later moved back to his old Otay Mesa pod, among detainees who were not suspected of having Covid-19. Though his infection was confirmed in a test, Malpica Perez said he and the others were not given a second test to determine whether they had recovered or developed antibodies — though he said he did request one. “We don’t know if we still have it,” he said. “We just don’t have the symptoms.”
Escobar Mejia was admitted to the Paradise Valley Hospital in National City, California, on Friday, April 24. According to ICE, he tested positive for Covid-19 that same day. Four days later, Del Valle received a call from ICE officials looking to find Escobar Mejia’s current attorney and next of kin — signs that his prognosis was not good. Rosa, meanwhile, had learned from a detainee that her brother was in the hospital, though she did not know how bad it was. Del Valle called to gently inform her of the news that ICE would soon deliver. “Other than that call, they have never reached out. They have never said, ‘I’m sorry for his death,’” Del Valle said. “Nothing.” The following Monday, an ICE attorney told the judge who had denied Escobar Mejia’s bond that his health had taken a turn for the worse — the government lawyer suggested praying for him.
At 2:15 a.m. on May 6, Escobar Mejia was pronounced dead. ICE said that the appropriate oversight bodies were informed of his death and that senior agency officials would review the matter. The Intercept sent the immigration enforcement agency and CoreCivic a list of questions concerning the timeline of events that led to his passing — none were answered. Amanda Gilchrist, director of public affairs for the private prison giant, wrote that, “Even before any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our facilities, we have rigorously followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities, as well as our government partners. We have responded to this unprecedented situation appropriately, thoroughly and with care for the safety and well-being of those entrusted to us and our communities.” Gilchrist directed all other inquiries to ICE’s office of public affairs. “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not comment on active investigations,” Jonathan Moor, a public affairs specialist for the agency, said in an email.“Per ICE procedures, the death of Carlos Escobar-Mejia is currently undergoing internal investigation. ICE will not be able to answer questions about this until the investigation is complete.”
According to Del Valle, Escobar Mejia’s death was the result of two failures: first, O’Connor’s denial of his bond, and second, the decision on the part of officials at ICE and CoreCivic not to take him to the hospital when he asked to see a doctor. “If they had taken him to the doctor before, there’s very high likelihood that he would have survived,” Del Valle said. “But we will never know because they never did that.”
Del Valle sometimes imagines Escobar Mejia’s final moments, alone in a hospital bed, struggling for air, scared and far from Rosa, the only person he had left. “The way that he left this world has to be the most desperate,” she said. “That’s what haunts me.”
Following his death, Escobar Mejia’s family learned that it would cost $1,700 to cremate his body. A small network of immigration attorneys helped Del Valle to raise the funds and organize a funeral service. Back at Otay Mesa, the men who cared for Escobar Mejia tacked letters to his door, apologies to Rosa for failing her brother. Inside the room, his dried vomit still caked the floor.
“We’re less than human to these people,” Navarez said. “This person was neglected and now he lost his life. What has to happen in order for them to take us serious? How many more people have to be hurt? How many more people have to die?”