In a matter of three weeks, 49 detainees at an immigration detention center in Batavia tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
One of those detainees, Cristian Diaz Arvelo, said he first heard he had COVID-19 when a guard at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility told him he was moving to another unit within the center.
“Not even the doctors come, just they, one of the officers came: ‘Oh you gonna be moved to a unit,’” Arvelo says. “I asked them why. ‘Oh, you tested positive.’ That’s all they say.”
Arvelo, 35, is from the Dominican Republic. He has asthma and high blood pressure - underlying health conditions that could qualify him for humanitarian release. But, he is not getting out.
In April, he lost his case for humanitarian parole because he has a criminal record. He’s being held in mandatory detention, which, he says, is like a life sentence. He doesn’t know how long he’ll be detained.
Since mid-March, the American Civil Liberties Union has sued U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement multiple times to release detainees around the country.
ICE says it's determining alternatives to detention on a case-by-case basis for detainees that are higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
Currently, the Batavia facility has just under 300 detainees, down from nearly 400 in early April. It can hold up to 650 detainees, if you include 32 solitary housing units.
Tricia Woodward, a registered nurse and infection preventionist at Rochester Regional Health says although she can't directly speak to the situation at the detention center, the novel coronavirus is easily transmitted through person-to-person contact.
“You have to be within six feet, less than six feet of an infected person to be at a higher risk and have some sort of potential exposure to that person,” Woodward says.
Before he tested positive for the virus, Arvelo was in the B-2 unit, an open dormitory where people sleep in bunk beds grouped in fours, and showers are communal. The only outside space is a tiny recreational space surrounded by a barbed wire fence behind a basketball hoop, no net, with a patch of sky above. This is where immigration lawyers say the outbreak started, after a transfer from Bergen County Jail in New Jersey in mid-March, where a corrections officer tested positive.
When Arvelo's test test came back positive, he was taken to another open dormitory with six others who had the virus. As more people tested positive, more people were sent to the dorm.
Arvelo says there are 20 people with him, each sleeping in a separate bunk unit that usually holds up to four people.
He says people’s symptoms have ranged from mild to severe enough to be taken to hospital for chest x-rays. At one point, he says, two people seemed like they might die.
ICE says no deaths have been reported dat the facility.
Since he’s gotten sick, Arvelo has spoken to his family, who live in the U.S. He and his wife have decided not to tell his three daughters that he has COVID-19. He’s worried about them, one has asthma just like he does. He’s also concerned for detainees who could be released.
“A lot of people in here, they don’t even have criminal record. And they doing time here,” Arvelo says. “I know a kid that was here. He came through this system when he was 16 years-old. Now he’s 21. Everything he did was cross the border.”