Speaking in a selfie video shot inside a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Broward County, a Cuban asylum-seeker named Guillermo wonders if the lives of immigrant detainees like him are as valuable as the lives of those on the outside.
"We're all going to die here if no one helps us," Guillermo says in Spanish in the video, which was released to local immigrant-justice groups on Wednesday. That same day, ICE announced the first positive case of COVID-19 at the Broward Transitional Center, the Pompano Beach facility where Guillermo is being held.
Since the early days of the coronavirus crisis, Guillermo has recorded several videos pleading for help for himself and fellow detainees. He shares the videos with his wife, who shares them with advocacy groups.
"He feels powerless and frustrated," says Maria Asuncion-Bilbao, a community organizer with United We Dream who's familiar with Guillermo's case. "He's asking for help from people on the outside. He feels no one cares about what's happening."
In the most recent video, Guillermo seems to address the general public, asking whether Americans want to see the detainees get sick — to become witnesses to their deaths.
"People think we're nothing," he says. "We've already realized we're nothing. But help us, please."
New Times obtained the video from Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees. Because Guillermo shared identifying information of the person in Broward who tested positive for COVID-19, the organization edited the video to exclude the person's name and identification number for privacy reasons.
A Salvadoran man held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in California died earlier this week, marking the first confirmed COVID-19 death at an ICE detention center. According to ICE data, only one detainee at the Broward Transitional Center (BTC) has tested positive for COVID-19 to date. But advocates worry there are more, and families of detainees say they're desperately concerned about their loved ones.
"They need to be freed," says Guillermo's wife, Adri, who asked that her full name not be published because she is undocumented. "No one has to die there. With the virus, there are so many risks. And we're all people."
Guillermo is asthmatic, and Adri worries about how he might suffer if he were to contract COVID-19. Before he came to the United States, he was an auto mechanic in Cuba. Adri says her husband sought asylum but lost his case and has a pending order of deportation. They've been together for five years, and she says she's awaiting his release so they can continue their lives together. She hopes an attorney Guillermo recently met with will be able to secure his release.
A lawsuit recently filed in Miami federal court, which alleges that ICE is disregarding U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for detention, calls for the release of detainees from three ICE facilities in the state: the Broward Transitional Center, the Krome Processing Center in Miami-Dade, and the Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven.
Advocacy groups including Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees and United We Dream, which aren't part of the lawsuit, have organized mobile protests demanding the release of those in immigrant detention.
ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox says anyone arriving at ICE facilities has his or her temperature checked. Anyone who tests positive in an ICE facility is placed in medical isolation, Cox says, and those who might have had contact with that person are placed into "medical cohort" — a grouping with others who have potentially been exposed. The lawsuit against ICE says that cohorting might spread the virus more quickly.
Nationally, 1,460 detainees have been tested for COVID-19. Cox says there are no breakdowns for how many detainees in South Florida have been tested. Last month, ICE announced the agency will receive more than 2,000 test kits per month to screen detainees before they're deported. ICE has said that because of the national shortage of test kits, the agency likely won't have enough kits to test every detainee before deportation. The Broward Transitional Center has a capacity of 700 detainees.
"Bottom line: Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have been taking important steps to safeguard all detainees, staff and contractors," Cox writes in an email. "Detainees are being monitored and tested for COVID-19 in line with CDC guidance, and in conjunction with the recommendations of state and local health partners."
Olga Del Rio Quiros, whose son Freddy has been in immigrant detention for more than a year, says he has been lucky enough to be able to buy soap at the BTC. But the bars don't last long, and he has to buy a new one often. She says her son tries to keep as much distance as possible between himself and other detainees.
"He washes his hands constantly and stays away from everyone to protect himself," Quiros tells New Times in a call from Cuba. "He walks around with the soap in his hand. He's afraid."
Freddy has high blood pressure and his mother worries that makes him vulnerable. Quiros hasn't heard from her son since Monday, and she says she lives in constant fear that he'll be transferred to another facility without her knowledge.
Freddy sought asylum when he entered the U.S. through Mexico, but a mixup at an ICE facility landed him in detention indefinitely, Quiros says.
"He can't come back to Cuba," she says. "His life will be a nightmare. He already left. If he comes back, it's straight to prison."
Quiros says she uses Facebook to share Freddy's story and to appeal to politicians to take action to protect those in immigrant detention amid the pandemic.
"That's what I've got left," she says. "Coming down hard and staying on top of the situation."
Keep New Times Broward-Palm Beach Free... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering South Florida with no paywalls.