In Louisiana and Texas, immigrants seeking asylum are facing dire conditions in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers hit by this week’s extreme cold. At the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, advocates say parents and children have been living with overflowing toilets, thirst, poor hygiene, and heat that fades in and out. Twenty miles away, at the South Texas ICE Processing Center in Pearsall, advocates say detainees who complained about the cold faced retaliation. At the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Louisiana, a detainee interviewed by The Intercept reports that the segregation unit, akin to solitary confinement, has no heat.
Lucia Allain, communications manager for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, known as RAICES, has been in contact with Ubaldo Ochoa Lopez, a father detained at the Pearsall facility, located outside San Antonio. Although the ICE processing center, which is run by the private prison firm GEO Group, did not lose power, detainees were still left without sufficient heat. “He said, ‘We’re all really, really cold,’” Allain told The Intercept, of her conversation on Thursday with Ochoa Lopez.
“If they’re hearing complaints like, ‘Oh it’s cold in here,’ they’ll be like, ‘It could be worse,’ and turn on fans.”
Detainees’ complaints to ICE agents about the temperature have been met with retaliation, Ochoa Lopez told Allain. “The officers are turning on fans to make it colder,” Allain said. “If they’re hearing complaints like, ‘Oh it’s cold in here,’ they’ll be like, ‘It could be worse,’ and turn on fans.” Ochoa Lopez told her that agents have thrown blankets into the garbage after detainees complained.
The situation heightened fears that the cold will leave people vulnerable to Covid-19 in a unit that houses around 90 people. ICE detention centers have been wracked with coronavirus infections, in part thanks to the nature of the close quarters. Detainees, advocates, and whistleblowers have also reported mismanagement and medical neglect.
Ochoa Lopez told Allain that the tension has at times spilled over into detainees fighting over the insufficient blankets.
ICE officials deny there is a problem with heat at the Pearsall facility. “Temperature checks at Pearsall yesterday showed that all areas of the facility were on average 70 degrees and within the acceptable range of 69 to 76 degrees,” a spokesperson told The Intercept over email.
Immigration advocates are accustomed to ICE denying problems exist. “First we had the mistreatment and separation of families, then we came into Covid with people getting sick in these facilities, now we have this whole other situation happening,” said Allain. She noted that many of the detainees in these centers could be paroled into the U.S. as they awaited asylum and other immigration rulings. So far the Biden administration has failed to take action: “In Texas, there is no move from this administration to release these families.”
At ICE’s Pine Prairie, Louisiana, detention center, the system of punishment for detainees became much more severe with the cold. Angel Argueta Anariba, who is detained there, told The Intercept that, although other parts of the facility have heat, the segregation unit does not.
Argueta Anariba was placed in an individual segregation cell a few days before the cold set in — a situation he describes as retaliatory. Argueta Anariba has a health condition that calls for a special diet. For months he has pressured the various ICE facilities to which he’s been transferred to fulfill his dietary requirements, to no avail. He said the Pine Prairie administration’s explanation for placing him in segregation — that he destroyed government property — is false. Rather, he believes it was retaliation for the continued pressure he has put on the institution to give him the correct meals.
Pine Prairie was recently accused of other retaliatory efforts. The Intercept reported this month that a guard at the private prison had threatened detainees with being put into the coronavirus ward if they did not submit to deportation orders.
For Argueta Anariba, the typical stresses of isolated confinement were unexpectedly compounded by the cold. Although detainees in segregation are in individual cells, Argueta Anariba was able to speak to the others through the walls. “There’s no heat, there’s nothing — we were eight people dying of cold,” he said. Argueta Anariba said he put on three pairs of pants and three shirts and stayed wrapped in his sheets in his bed all day. He said that meals would arrive cold by the time they got to the cell. His bones ached. “I’m asthmatic,” he said. “On Sunday I had terrible chest pain.” Though the freezing weather arrived on Friday, Argueta Anariba said it wasn’t until Sunday that he was offered an extra blanket.
On Thursday, he was released back into a regular — heated — unit, a move he says could have happened sooner to protect him from the cold. ICE officials told The Intercept that although Pine Prairie made use of a generator on Wednesday, and the facility never lost heat or power. “ICE facilities in Louisiana are experiencing weather-related impacts that mirror the local community, however all ICE facilities have back-up generator power,” a spokesperson said. “All facilities have also implemented contingency plans developed in anticipation of severe winter weather.”
The assessment did not match Argueta Anariba’s experience. “There are seven people still in those conditions,” he said on Thursday. “To leave people in those conditions is inhumane.”
ICE has the power to allow detainees to leave facilities that have become increasingly dangerous, said Natalie Lerner, a paralegal with Proyecto Dilley, a pro bono legal services provider for detainees at the South Texas Family Residential Center. “In our view, they should pretty seriously consider releasing everybody,” she said. “It seems like the conditions aren’t very safe.”
The pandemic is of particular concern. “What has been on my mind is the folks we work with that have preexisting issues, who are already vulnerable because of Covid, and this is further threatening their health,” she said.
Families she works with inside the South Texas Family Residential Center — which is managed by private prison company CoreCivic — report that since Sunday the heat and electricity have periodically shut down, at times for long stretches. Over the weekend, the water was cut off and toilets overflowed. With no means to flush, the shared toilets became more and more full, Lerner said. Parents and children were given one bottle of water in the morning to get them through the day. They were left wearing the same clothes for days on end. As of Thursday, blackouts and problems with water continued.
“In our view, they should pretty seriously consider releasing everybody. It seems like the conditions aren’t very safe.”
With phone service spotty, a sense of isolation has set in. “One client I’ve been working with, who has a wife in the facility — they’re detained separately — she has a lot of medical concerns,” Lerner said. “He’s been really, really worried about her.”
She added that there’s a huge amount of worry for parents for their kids. “We’ve heard people saying kids are getting sick because of how cold it is,” she said. “People are expressing a lot of desperation.”
Again, ICE officials denied the advocates’ reports. “Like most of Texas, ICE facilities in Texas have had to deal with intermittent power outages and interruptions in water service, however all ICE facilities have back-up generator power,” a spokesperson said. “Toilets at South Texas FRC are not overflowing. Residents of the South Texas FRC did experience interruptions in water service for a couple of days, like most of Texas, but it was restored yesterday. No facilities are rationing water bottles, and they have plenty of water bottles.”
Across the border in Matamoros, asylum-seekers, including families with children, have suffered the cold weather at a refugee camp that emerged in response to President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies. The Migration Protection Protocols, known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, forced many asylum-seekers to wait for their asylum hearings on the Mexico side of the border. Although President Joe Biden ended the program, the asylum-seekers have not yet been processed.
Although the extreme weather is certainly to blame for much of the misery in ICE detention centers this month, many of the conditions precede the storms. Even in areas accustomed to cold, the immigration agency’s detention centers have a reputation for failing to keep people warm in cold weather.
Over the last few weeks, for example, the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey, which holds ICE detainees, has lacked heat. On January 29, the Legal Aid Society, the Bronx Defenders, and Brooklyn Defender Services wrote a letter to the agency, saying, “At least one detainee has been told ‘the cold will kill the coronavirus, so we’re not turning it on.’”
Meanwhile, a whistleblower who worked at Louisiana’s Richwood Correctional Center, run by the private prison firm LaSalle Corrections, told the Government Accountability Project that staff were told to crank up the air conditioning in order to hide Covid-19 cases. Detainee temperatures were taken from their foreheads; the idea was to “freeze them out” and manipulate the thermometer so that deportation flights wouldn’t reject people with fevers.
Meanwhile, the holding cells operated by Customs and Border Protection have long been known as hieleras, or ice boxes.
In response to the complaints about Bergen, ICE officials told The Intercept, “Temperature checks at Bergen today showed that all areas of the facility were within the acceptable temperature range and no complaints about heat have been reported by detainees at the facility.”
Sophia Elena Gurulé, immigration policy counsel at the Bronx Defenders, said it’s typical for such concerns to be ignored. “As recent as two days ago we heard complaints from our clients, people detained at Bergen County Jail, that there are ongoing problems with the heat,” she said. “The Bronx Defenders and the providers that issued that statement have been issuing statements like that for years.”
“There is no way that these facilities can be properly handled by an agency that continues to demonstrate a lack of real oversight consideration or care.”
She added that the problem of no heat is not limited to an extreme weather event or region. “This is inherent to how the systems are actually run and monitored. There is no way that these facilities can be properly handled by an agency that continues to demonstrate a lack of real oversight consideration or care,” she said. “It really makes you wonder why ICE does not release people in their custody to make it so people can fight their deportation cases on the outside.”
Such problems are only expected to get worse, given the effects of the climate crisis, and Biden has no plans to end ICE detention. How much conditions in ICE detention will change under the new administration is yet to be seen. Biden is reportedly preparing a plan to release many of the families detained at the South Texas Family Residential Center.
Ochoa Lopez is a survivor of Trump’s zero tolerance immigration policy. He was separated from his son in 2018, after crossing the border into the U.S. The family, which is from Guatemala, was reunited two months later, but Ochoa Lopez was detained again in October after being convicted of driving while intoxicated, a misdemeanor. As NBC News reported, Ochoa Lopez’s 9-year-old son has written to Biden, pleading for his father’s release.
The Biden administration’s latest immigration enforcement guidelines, released Thursday, say that only immigrants who present a national security or public safety threat, or recently crossed the border, should be prioritized for detention or deportation — leaving an opening for a reprieve for Ochoa Lopez. His attorney said that he falls under none of the enforcement priorities, and she has filed a new petition for his release, based on Biden’s guidelines. The order does not offer such a clear pathway of release for Argueta Anariba.
The “public safety threat” label encompasses people convicted of a crime that includes active gang involvement or who are convicted of a so-called aggravated felony, a term that refers to an array of offenses — not all of them criminal felonies — legally tied to severe immigration consequences. The new guidelines note that ICE officers should also consider a person’s family and health circumstances, as well as how recent and serious their criminal activity was, when deciding whether to prioritize their detention.
Gurulé said it’s not enough to meaningfully change the system. “What I’ve seen so far is the continued criminalization of immigrants, the continued wanting to expel people from the country because of their criminal legal system contact,” she said.
Argueta Anariba was sent to ICE detention six years ago after spending seven years in prison for aggravated assault, the product of an incident he describes as self-defense. His attorneys have already argued that his crime does not count as an “aggravated felony.” An immigration judge declined to rule on the matter and decided to continue to hold him on unrelated grounds.
By now, Argueta Anariba, a father of four, has spent nearly as much time in ICE detention as he did completing his prison sentence. Despite such a long detention in such torturous conditions, Argueta Anariba is certain he will be killed if he is deported to Honduras. His asylum case is pending.