Federal immigration authorities are refusing to release an HIV-positive man who has been held in a Minnesota detention facility since January, despite the fact that the man has already won his case for release before an immigration judge—and despite his severe risk of medical complications from the coronavirus outbreaks that have spread inside detention facilities across the country.
“I’m dying, slowly, even with my medication,” said William Zacarias Marroquìn, a 32-year-old restaurant worker, calling from inside the Sherburne County Jail in Elk River, Minnesota. “I don't know if they care or not, but I can be spending my time with my family, my fiancé. I don’t know if they’ve considered that.”
“He’s already won his case in front of the immigration judge on his own,” said Hanne Sandison, an immigrant justice fellow with Advocates for Human Rights, which provides free legal services to low-income asylum seekers in the Upper Midwest and has formed part of the team of attorneys advocating for Marroquìn’s release. “He didn’t have a lawyer and he won—the only reason he’s detained is that DHS is appealing his case, and that is not a good reason to keep him detained.”
Marroquìn’s case is similar to those of other detainees across the country whose advocates are pushing for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to allow for their release in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. In March, Immigration Equality, a non-profit that advocates on behalf of LGBT and HIV-positive people in the legal system, filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s office of civil rights calling for the immediate release of all ICE detainees living with HIV due to the “mortal pandemic.”
“Our community has faced a life-threatening pandemic before. Then, as now, we raised the alarm with government officials who did nothing until we forced them to,” said Aaron C. Morris, executive director of Immigration Equality. “We cannot allow the negligence of the federal government to let our people die again. All people living with HIV must be released from immigration detention immediately. Every day DHS waits will have fatal consequences.”
That warning has proved accurate. The virus, highly contagious and increasingly prevalent in tight-knit immigrant communities where many have limited access to medical care, has blazed through crowded prisons and immigrant detention facilities in recent months with terrifying speed. In one example that briefly became the hottest coronavirus outbreak in the country, less than one month after a single staff member at the Marion Correctional Institution in northern Ohio tested positive for COVID-19, more than 70 percent of the prison’s 2,500 inmates had tested positive for the virus. By mid-June, 14 inmates there had died.
Public-health experts have warned that immigration courts and detention facilities in particular pose a potential “public health hazard” during the pandemic, with one model published in the Journal of Urban Health finding that even under the most optimistic scenario, nearly three in four detainees could be expected to be infected with COVID-19 within 90 days of the virus’ initial introduction to a facility.
As of June 26, ICE has tested 10,513 of the more than 23,000 people in immigrant detention across the United States—and one in four have tested positive. But despite high turnover in the Sherburne facility and increasing fears by those detained there that the virus may already be inside, ICE has denied requests for more frequent testing.
“The best information I have is that they’ve only conducted five tests, and we have spoken to other individuals who have asked for tests and have experienced symptoms and have been denied tests,” Sandison said, noting that the agency’s rationale for who gets tested and who doesn’t varies widely from facility to facility. Some ICE detention centers provide testing to anyone who asks, while others, including Sherburne, have opaque criteria that seems to change from day to day. “One of the things they’re supposed to do is lay out who gets tested, when, and why—but we don’t even know that. We don’t even know how ICE is deciding who to test and who not to test.”
While there have not yet been any cases reported in Sherburne, Marroquìn says that testing in Sherburne has been sporadic and inconsistent. Some feverish detainees, he told The Daily Beast, have been denied tests for not having additional symptoms, despite estimates by the World Health Organization that up to 80 percent of positive COVID-19 cases are either asymptomatic or only show mild symptoms. In May, 62 inmates submitted a petition requesting that they be tested only for their request to be denied, Marroquìn said, allegedly because not enough of them displayed symptoms beyond a fever. Now, he told The Daily Beast, there are rumors within Sherburne that if a test does come back positive, the detainees will simply be held there until the infection burns out.
“The suspicion is they’re not gonna release anybody under that circumstance, if someone in here gets tested positive with COVID-19,” Marroquìn said. “We’re talking, why do they wait for it? They can prevent it.”
Conditions in Sherburne have not calmed those fears. The food, Marroquìn said, often leaves detainees with upset stomachs—except when the facility was inspected, when he said that the detainees were fed the best meals they’d had in detention—and although his daily medications have not been interrupted, he had to wait for months to see a specialist for treatment relating to his HIV status.
ICE has so far refused to release Marroquìn while DHS appeals his case, despite his risk of complications if the virus were to arrive at the Sherburne facility, and recent departmental practice to exercise discretion on appealing cases where immigrants have won relief.
“Within the last year or so, we’ve seen the Department of Homeland Security start to appeal more decisions,” said Sarah Brenes, director of Advocates for Human Rights’ refugee and immigrant program, who said it was “mind-boggling” that ICE continues to hold Marroquìn. “It was not unusual a few years ago, even under the current administration, for the judge to grant relief and the government to acknowledge and just waive appeal.”
ICE has put forward a lengthy guidance addressing how the pandemic is being handled in detention centers: the agency has lowered the population of most detention centers by a third, reduced the number of detainees who are introduced to the system, and increased deportations—sometimes inadvertently spreading the virus to Central America. As part of those efforts, more than 900 people at increased medical risk of complications from COVID-19 infection have already been released from detention.
Under its own guidelines and a court order in California, Sandison noted, ICE is obligated to continually re-evaluate the custody of medically vulnerable detainees. But more than a month after Marroquìn’s advocates notified ICE that he was at high risk and should be reviewed for release, ICE notified his legal team in late May that he was ineligible for parole for being a “potential threat to public safety,” purportedly due to a controlled substance charge to which he pled guilty in January.
“He’s not a violent offender and so he should be released on that basis” alone, said Sunny Beddow, an associate at Ballard Spahr LLP who is working on Marroquìn’s case pro bono, who noted that her client has close family and a fiancé in Sioux Falls. “We’re not talking about somebody who’s moved around a lot and doesn’t have any connections, or is a flight risk, and so, the fact that they continue to deny him relief when he is at risk is sort of incredible to me.”
When reached by The Daily Beast, an ICE spokesperson did not directly address questions about Marroquìn’s case, or about its testing regimen at the Sherburne facility.
“The case is currently pending litigation in federal court,” said Shawn Neudauer, a public affairs officer with the Department of Homeland Security, who directed The Daily Beast to the Department of Homeland Security’s guidance on COVID-19. “As a matter of policy, ICE cannot comment on cases pertaining to ongoing litigation.”
The agency’s acting director, however, has previously indicated that its refusal to release those held in detention is directly related to the Trump administration’s prioritization of reducing immigration into the United States. During a closed-door briefing with the House Committee on Oversight and Reform in April, acting ICE director Matthew Albence told lawmakers that releasing detainees could give the impression that President Donald Trump is “not enforcing our immigration laws,” creating a “rush at the borders.”
Marroquìn’s legal team told The Daily Beast that ICE has them in a catch-22—the agency refuses to release Marroquìn while no cases have been reported at Sherburne, but won’t release detainees at facilities where the virus has been discovered for fear of spreading the illness even further.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” said Sandison. “They don’t want to release anyone before there’s a positive test, and then once there is, they think it’s unsafe to release anyone.”
Marroquìn told The Daily Beast that all he wants is to be with his family, particularly during the pandemic that threatens his life.
“All I want to say is, please, wait for me. Be patient. I’m doing the best that I can, and I’m going to see them as soon as ICE lets me see them,” Marroquìn said when asked if he had a message for his loved ones. “I miss them too much, and I hope I can see them soon, and spend the rest of my life with them.”