Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., civil-liberties groups have warned that the virus would be a death sentence for people in jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers.
That's proven to be true for immigrants in detention in Georgia, Louisiana, California, and now Florida. On Sunday, a man in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody at the Glades County Detention Center died while being treated for COVID-19 at a hospital in Palm Beach County.
The detainee, Onoval Perez-Montufa, a 51-year-old from Mexico, reported feeling shortness of breath and had been hospitalized since July 1, according to an ICE news release. He tested positive for COVID-19 on July 2. An ICE spokesperson said the agency couldn't comment beyond the information in the news release because the death is being investigated.
The immigrant-rights group Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees will host a vigil to honor Perez-Montufa on Saturday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. outside the Glades detention center, where they will call on Glades County Sheriff David Hardin end the contract with ICE to detain immigrants at the jail.
Wendy King, a lead organizer for Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees, says she learned of Perez-Montufa's death when ICE posted its news release. She reached out to all the immigrants she knows at the Glades County jail to notify them, figure out who may have known Perez-Montufa, and find out more about his life and illness.
One of Perez-Montufa's podmates described him as a nice man who offered him food the same day he started experiencing shortness of breath. Another podmate said Perez-Montufa had weak lungs and difficulty breathing at night. The podmate said he was "hoping and praying [Perez-Montufa] would come back to us."
King says the group has had no luck locating Perez-Montufa's family. The ICE release says the agency passed along news of the death to the Mexican consulate and Perez Montufa's next of kin.
Perez-Montufa was transferred to ICE custody after serving a prison sentence for a prior drug conviction at a federal facility in Massachusetts, according to the agency.
King says she took issue with ICE referring to Perez-Montufa as an "aggravated felon" in its news release.
"They're evading any responsibility, almost insinuating this person deserved it because they were here illegally," she says.
As of Tuesday, 124 detainees at Glades have tested positive for COVID-19 so far this year. According to the agency's data, 46 detainees in ICE custody at Glades are currently positive and under medical observation or isolation.
For months, Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees and other organizations have sounded the alarm about deteriorating conditions inside immigrant detention centers and the risks of transferring people from facility to facility. King says she regularly receives messages from people in custody who report experiencing COVID-19 symptoms: high fever, chest pain, coughing, loss of taste, and loss of smell. Some have seen fellow detainees vomit blood or pass out.
"We have a feeling of hopelessness and guilt because we're getting these messages every day from people asking, 'How can you help us? Why isn't anyone doing anything?'" King says. "And we just have to keep trying to organize and figure out how to improve conditions there and get people out."
In May, King filed two complaints about conditions at Glades with the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. One complaint says jail staff sprayed an irritating chemical in the housing unit that was causing some detainees to have respiratory issues.
"We were also very disturbed to learn that it is inmate 'trustees' who are being forced to dispense this dangerous chemical into the housing units with no masks, gloves or other protective gear, and seemingly without any warning about how to handle this chemical," King wrote in the complaint.
In another, Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees described a "humanitarian crisis" at Glades, in which detainees were falling seriously ill and experiencing widespread medical neglect.
Advocacy groups and immigration attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit in April to seek the release of detainees at Glades, Krome Processing Center in south Miami-Dade, and Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach. Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees is not part of the lawsuit, but King says she fears that by the time the case goes to trial, it will be too late for many detainees.
"By that point, a lot of people are going to have been deported, gotten sick, or died," King says.
As for the vigil, King says attendees will wear masks and adhere to social-distancing guidelines. A faith leader will speak, and the organization plans to read the tributes Perez-Montufa's podmates shared about him.
For people who can't make the drive or go in person, King says the vigil will be streamed on Facebook Live.
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