On her 425th day in the United States’ largest immigrant detention complex, Margarita stuck to her routine: breakfast with her 8-year-old son followed by a shower.
While bathing her son, Sal, later that Sunday in November at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, she noticed his skin looked awfully red and felt unusually warm. Sal brushed off her concern, but later that day, he cut short his time playing outside with the other kids. He came back to their room bleary-eyed and lethargic. Then, he started complaining of a headache and a stomachache. When she felt his forehead, Sal was burning up.
Margarita and Sal — both of whose names have been changed at the request of their lawyers because they fear retribution for speaking out — went to the clinic four times in the next three days. Three days after she noticed her son’s symptoms and after both were tested, they were told Sal had tested positive for COVID-19. Margarita was not tested when the clinic tested Sal.
“The doctor and nurses told me, ‘Don’t cry, be strong!’” she told her lawyer, who then provided her declaration to The Fuller Project. “But I wanted to yell at them: ‘He’s been sick since Sunday! How many people will have been infected since then?’”
The Guatemalan mother provided a detailed account of her experience over the last few days to her lawyer over the phone in Spanish, because they cannot meet in person due to COVID-19 restrictions in place at the center. Her lawyer, Mackenzie Levy, documented the call in the form of a declaration she intends to file in court.
For months, lawyers with Proyecto Dilley, a legal services non-profit, representing the families currently detained at Dilley have made a case for their clients, mostly women and children from Central America fleeing persecution, to be paroled as their cases wind through the sluggish court system. These families have undergone severe trauma in their home countries and during their journeys, and now face indefinite detention due to a litany of the Trump administration’s policies later blocked in court, unable to protect themselves as a deadly virus spreads around them, the lawyers argue.
Their lawyers cite a 1997 Flores settlement that requires all migrant children be released “expeditiously” — interpreted by the courts as within 20 days — from secure, unlicensed facilities. But the administration has skirted these rules by giving detained parents what advocates call “a binary choice”: They could stay in indefinite detention with their children; or be separated, allowing the children to be released alone. Four families have been deported from Dilley since May, the group of lawyers for the family said Two other families self-deported from the detention center because they could not bear being detained any longer, they added.
Going back to Guatemala, where Margarita has faced discrimination, extortion, and threats of violence since she was seven years old, is not an option, her lawyer added.
Nora Picasso says they were shepherded through a “shadow process” instead of the typical asylum process, with some families already receiving deportation orders.
“The prolonged detention, the constant risk of getting sick with COVID-19, and the probability of dying there, is something that affects these women a lot,” says Picasso. “It’s not only their concern for themselves but … those they most love.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that detains and deports immigrants, confirmed via email last week that four coronavirus cases were being monitored at the facility. Now, that number is up to 13. More than 7,600 people, including 19 at Dilley, have tested positive in ICE custody since the agency began tracking cases in February.
ICE has about 200 detention centers around the country. Over 80% of the agency’s detainees are held at facilities owned and operated by private prison companies. Dilley is one of three such facilities designed to hold families. It’s a massive complex in a small town an hour south of San Antonio, run by private company CoreCivic.
During the time they have been held at Dilley, Margarita and Sal haven’t stepped out of the facility complex once. On Nov. 25, after Sal’s diagnosis, they were isolated and moved to the medical annex.
“Even while I am freezing, and feeling like I was back in the hielera, [Sal] is burning up with fever,” Margarita says in her declaration, referring to border stations that migrants often call “ice boxes” or “hieleras” due to freezing temperatures.
“I keep asking for medicine and no one will bring it to us.”
That’s where they have remained without much to distract themselves from their escalating anxieties except for dust they see swirling when they switch on the lights, according to the declaration Margarita filed with her lawyer. Margarita told her lawyer the floor is strewn with stray hairs and balls of pilled fabric. The toilet looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in months and Sal doesn’t like drinking the tap water near it.
In recent months, ICE has faced significant criticism from lawmakers and advocates for how it has handled the pandemic. A number of news investigations have found that the agency’s practice of transferring detainees between its various facilities, and deporting them abroad, resulted in local outbreaks of the virus. Margarita believes that’s what happened at Dilley.
“It is the employees who come and go from here, and the new families just arriving, who are bringing [COVID-19] into this place,” she says in her declaration.
All individuals are tested at intake, An ICE spokesperson maintained via email. Anyone who exhibits symptoms consistent with COVID-19 is immediately isolated, provided with care, and that contract tracing is conducted to root out where the infection came from, according to the agency.
“In instances where a larger population or housing unit may have been exposed, saturation testing can be facilitated and a restriction of movement may be implemented,” wrote the spokesperson, who asked that the information provided be attributed to the agency.
ICE did not respond to follow-ups asking whether it had figured out the source of this latest outbreak in Dilley, but said it “ensures all individuals detained in our facilities receive all necessary medical care provided by medical professionals, in accordance to CDC guidelines.”
On Thanksgiving eve, a D.C. appeals court issued a temporary stay of removal for 28 children and their parents at Dilley and the Pennsylvania facilities until a final decision is rendered in their case. But the order is just that: temporary. No clear respite appears to be in sight — at least until a court makes a lasting decision or the incoming administration exercises its discretion.
When Margarita’s lawyer last checked in with her on Dec. 2 , Sal was still symptomatic, and Margarita felt unwell as well. A COVID-19 test she was made to take in recent days came out negative but she thinks it may have been a false result, she told her lawyer. Unhappy with how the authorities have treated her, and more importantly, her son, she intends to continue her fight to gain protection, her lawyer told The Fuller Project.
For now, Margarita remains isolated in her cell, anxious about the fate of her own family and of others around her at the facility.
“I am very worried about the other families here, but also about the officers,” she says.
“There is one woman I have seen here in the medical annex who is quite old and very nice…. I think about her a lot and hope that she is okay.”