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Marisol Mendoza Has Been In ICE Detention Since 2016. Now, She Has COVID-19

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last week, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, ICE, reported a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases at one of its detention facilities in Arizona. In a matter of days, the number of detainees infected with the coronavirus inside the Eloy Detention Center went from just over 20 to more than 120. ICE said it has, quote, "comprehensive protocols," unquote, in place to protect staff and patients in accordance, it says, with CDC guidance.

But advocates say conditions inside the facility and a neighboring one in Arizona are putting the health of detainees and possibly their lives at risk. Reporters Valeria Fernandez and Jude Joffe-Block have been following the case of one detainee who tested positive for COVID-19 at the Eloy facility. They wrote about it for The Guardian last week, and they are with us now from Phoenix.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK: Thank you for having us.

VALERIA FERNANDEZ: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: So, Valeria Fernandez, let me start with you. Tell us about Marisol Mendoza, the woman whose case you've been following. Just give us the outlines of her story.

FERNANDEZ: Marisol Mendoza is a 47-year-old woman. She's originally from Mexico. She's been living here in the United States for half of her life. All of her family is here. And she suffers from depression and diabetes type 2. That's the reason why Marisol Mendoza sued the government to ask for her release. She was very afraid that she could get sick with COVID-19. This is, like, all the way back in March.

And unfortunately, she did get sick. There was a federal judge that ordered Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to put in place certain protections for Marisol. But according to her attorney, they failed for the most part, and that's the reason why Marisol got sick.

MARTIN: How long has she been in ICE detention?

FERNANDEZ: She's been in detention for four years. And she's not there serving a crime. This is immigration detention. It's not punitive. So what is going on is that she is in the middle of a deportation proceeding. She's appealing to be able to get to stay in the country. The government is not granting her the opportunity to have bond.

And how she came to the attention of immigration authorities is because about six years ago, she was charged with identity theft. She'd been a manager at McDonald's for nine years, and she was working with false documents. And that's how she came to the attention of the police and eventually immigration authorities to carry into custody.

MARTIN: So, Jude Jaffe-Block, in your piece, you write that Mendoza sued ICE and the private contractor that runs the facility back in March, arguing she should be released because of the risk of COVID-19 infections. And as you point out in your piece, she's at greater risk because she has an underlying health condition, which is diabetes. So, Jude Joffe-Block, what happened with the lawsuit?

JOFFE-BLOCK: Well, her lawsuit is still going. Her attorney actually has plans to appeal to the 9th Circuit because so far, the judge has not released her. The judge did find that she was not being adequately cared for in ICE custody, and now she's in a medical isolation cell. And one of the complicated parts of this is that she suffers from depression. And her attorney and some medical experts on her behalf have argued that this kind of isolation could be very detrimental to her ability to recover and to her mental health.

MARTIN: Has ICE released any detainees during the pandemic because of the threat posed by the virus?

JOFFE-BLOCK: They have. They've released more than 900 immigrants at this point. But immigrant advocates say that they need to do a lot more. There's a federal judge in California that ordered the agency back in April to do a comprehensive review of all of the immigrants who are particularly vulnerable, with preexisting conditions or over the age of 55, and reconsider their release.

But, you know, so far, a large-scale release has not happened. There are still a very large number of people who are detained and more than 2,200 COVID-19 cases around the country in these facilities.

MARTIN: Valeria, I understand that you've spoken to Marisol Mendoza from inside the facility. How is she doing?

FERNANDEZ: Well, the first time I talked to her was about a week ago. And she was very, very depressed, had very little human interaction. She is very concerned for her family and really worried, really, for her life. She's been there for four years in detention, and now this is almost like the last drop. She's in a very, very fraught, I think, vulnerable mental state and literally pleading with the authorities to give her a chance to go back to recover with her family.

MARTIN: I'd like to understand, though, again, why she was taken into custody to begin with. As I understood it, at least her 2016, the priority was supposed to be people who had committed crime or violent crimes. And from what I'm understanding from you is that she - her crime was that she was using false documents. She was not part of some theft ring, for example. She was not - so I'm just - I'm still trying to understand why she's been detained for four years.

FERNANDEZ: Well, immigration law can be very complicated. In this case, in Arizona, this category of crime is considered a crime that can make you deportable. And in the case of Marisol, she wasn't working with someone else's name. She was working with her real name and a made-up Social Security number that happened to belong to someone else. But she didn't necessarily know that. And that's not what she admitted to when she pled. So there's a difference between those two things, and that's at the heart of her case.

MARTIN: So, Jude, I think you were telling us that Marisol Mendoza is one of more than 2,000 detainees who've tested positive in ICE detention facilities. And two detainees that we know of have died. Is that correct? So what is the response to this growing number of cases?

JOFFE-BLOCK: What we're seeing from ICE and CoreCivic that runs the Eloy Detention Center where Marisol is housed - I mean, they continue to say that they are following CDC guidelines. They are treating their detainees appropriately. But we're continuing to see these numbers grow. And it's not just detainees. It's also the guards who work in these facilities. At Eloy Detention Center, more than 60 detention officers have tested positive so far, and one officer died last weekend. So this is an issue that affects the entire community.

MARTIN: So, Valeria, a final thought here - what are advocates saying that they want ICE to do now?

FERNANDEZ: Advocates are continuing to call for the release of people - everybody, not just those with vulnerable conditions. And what we've seen in a lot of cases is that people have sponsors. They have ties to the community. Even if they don't have family, there are people that are volunteer them to take them into their homes where they can continue to be isolated and recover from COID-19 without any risk to the rest of the community.

MARTIN: We are speaking with reporters Valeria Fernandez and Jude Joffe-Block in Phoenix. They've been reporting on conditions inside ICE detention facilities in Arizona in the midst of a surge in coronavirus cases there. Their piece on the case of Marisol Mendoza was published by The Guardian.

Valeria Fernandez and Jude Joffe-Block, thanks so much for talking to us.

FERNANDEZ: Thank you.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.