"A Matter of Life or Death": Miami Woman Seeks Husband's Release From ICE Detention

Photos courtesy of Karina Ganies
Karina Ganies, left, seeks her husband's release from immigrant detention after he tested positive for COVID-19.
Karina Ganies' voice has trembled with worry for days.

Her husband has been in immigrant detention in several South Florida facilities since early March and was transferred to Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven in May. On June 4, he tested positive for COVID-19.

"He had been sick and complained about his chest hurting," says Ganies, who lives in Kendall. "His chest was getting tight. Weeks ago, he said, 'I can't breathe. I can't breathe.'"

Despite his illness, Ganies says, her husband is on track to be deported soon to Trinidad and Tobago, where he hasn't lived since he was about eight years old. She and her husband's immigration attorney, Joseph Lackey, continue to file paperwork in hopes of securing his release or a review of his case.

Lackey asked New Times to use the pseudonym "Ralph" to refer to his client out of fear that he would be retaliated against for drawing media attention to his case.

ICE told New Times in an email that the agency could not discuss his medical information.

"On June 16, [Ralph] was screened and medically cleared for travel in accordance with CDC guidelines," a spokesperson wrote, referencing the deportation order.

Ralph has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, better known as COPD, and was hospitalized in 2018 for pneumonia and the flu. Since late April, Lackey has been petitioning Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to release him from detention, citing the underlying health conditions that made him high-risk for COVID-19.

"In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, [Ralph] is at very high risk of contracting the virus. If infected [he] would likely face death due to his respiratory issues," Lackey wrote in a letter to his client's deportation officer in April.

Despite Lackey's pleas, Ralph remained in immigration detention. When he was moved to Glades, he was exposed to more than a dozen fellow detainees who had tested positive for COVID-19 or who were exhibiting symptoms.

Lackey's office sent numerous emails to a deportation officer at Glades during that time. An email from late May references an "alarming" phone call from Ralph in which he said he had a temperature of 101 degrees and a bad cough. The email says Ralph asked for medical attention but wasn't allowed to see a doctor.

Ganies says she also called the facility to request treatment for her husband.

"How many requests does it take for them to actually see him?" she asks.

Ralph tested positive for COVID-19 at the beginning of June. Ganies says a doctor prescribed a nebulizer for his labored breathing, and the medical staff gave him Tylenol. Lackey's office again emailed the deportation officer.

"His health is a matter of life or death," the email stated.

The Glades detention center has a total of 66 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to ICE's most recent data. A lawsuit filed in Miami federal court in April alleges that ICE is disregarding U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for detention during the pandemic and calls for the release of detainees from three South Florida facilities.

Despite his illness, Ralph faces deportation in the coming weeks. Ganies says she talks to him every day but on Tuesday found out that his phone account at Glades had been frozen, indicating the potential start of his removal process. Ralph called his wife using a fellow detainee's account to tell her something was wrong.

"He told me he would try to give me a heads up [if he was getting deported]," Ganies says. "I told him to be careful, and we said our goodbyes."

Wednesday came and went with no news. Around 3 a.m. Thursday, Ralph called his wife from a detention center in rural Louisiana, a place Lackey says is the final stop before deportation. A charter flight was supposed to leave Louisiana for Trinidad and Tobago later that day, and Ganies says her husband was supposed to be on it. But because he was still testing positive for COVID-19, Ganies says, he was told he'd be held at the facility for two more weeks before being deported.

With the clock ticking, Lackey is in the process of vacating his client's two previous criminal convictions to adjust his immigration status. In 2015, Ralph was adjudicated guilty on charges of evidence tampering and fleeing from police. Ganies says he was taken into ICE custody in March following an argument between the couple that led to his arrest for domestic battery. That case is still pending in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.

It's unclear whether Ralph can be deported while his attorney is fighting the case. An email from a deportation officer to Lackey's office on June 24 says "there are no legal impediments" to Ralph's deportation and that unless a stay is granted, ICE "will continue with removal efforts."

Back in Kendall, Ganies says surviving without her husband has been a struggle. He was the primary caretaker for his mother, who suffers from chronic pain in her feet and relies on him to help her with groceries and chores around the house. Ganies works two jobs to pay the bills, keep a roof over her head, and meet their family's needs. She shares custody of her son with the boy's father, and Ralph has a grown son from a previous relationship. Ganies also runs her husband's pool-table business and is making rent payments on the warehouse.

"If he gets out, I don't want him to lose his business," Ganies says. "I'm trying to keep it running so when he gets out, he can get back on his feet."

In the event he isn't released, she's applying for a passport to join him in Trinidad for a while. In an emotional declaration she wrote in the petition to stay her husband's deportation, she begged the judge not to send her husband away.

"The point I am getting to be, we need [him] here with us," she wrote. "We are all falling apart without him here."