Virus began spreading in Texas detention center as positive immigrants were quickly transferred in from Northeast

Tribune Content Agency

DALLAS — The number of immigrants at the Prairieland Detention Center southwest of Dallas who are ill with COVID-19 has risen to three dozen in a rapid spread of the contagion that immigrant families say is linked to transfers from Pennsylvania.

Luis Buitrago, a 50-year-old truck driver from Philadelphia and a native of Colombia, is one of them. Buitrago said he was desperate to leave the civil detention center in rural Alvarado, about an hour’s drive from Dallas.

“I don’t feel good. I was coughing all night,” Buitrago said in a phone interview from Prairieland. “You are infected with corona and you think no one cares about you. I am getting crazy in here. There is a guy here who says he is going to kill himself.”

A day before Easter, Buitrago and about 20 other detainees were transferred in the middle of the night by bus and plane from the Pike County Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania, where two people have died from the disease caused by the coronavirus and a handful of others had tested positive.

Many of those detainees now have coronavirus at Prairieland, where the coronavirus spread from three infected people to 36, according to official counts by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Buitrago says he is in a segregated area called “the hole” where he and others who are nearby are also infected.

Attorneys and legal nonprofits including the ACLU are fighting for release of detainees they believe are most vulnerable to the coronavirus contagion because of advanced age or health vulnerabilities like diabetes. Other organizations, including Amnesty International and the United Nations, are advocating for the release of all detainees regardless of age or health conditions.

Nearly 31,000 immigrants are being held in civil detention by ICE. The agency said it was coping with 360 confirmed cases nationwide as of Monday night.

The legal efforts to free those threatened by the coronavirus are patchy and laborious, with wins and losses being reported in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Pennsylvania and California.

Last week, a federal judge ordered ICE to review cases and consider the release of all persons in detention whose age or health conditions put them at risk due to the pandemic.

In Dallas federal district court, one temporary restraining order was filed for a Pakistani immigrant at Prairieland.

“We have always thought that outbreaks were exactly what would happen,” said Felix Villalobos, an attorney with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, a Texas-based legal nonprofit. “That is why there have been lawsuits around the country. ICE isn’t really good about taking care of people’s medical needs.”

Jennifer de Haro, the RAICES managing attorney in Fort Worth, is particularly worried about the safety of her client at Prairieland. The client isn’t one of those who has tested positive with the coronavirus, but the chaotic immigration system, which allows for multiple transfers of detainees, from border stations to county jails to detention centers around the nation, creates multiple chances for the spread of the virus, she said.

That’s what many believe happened at Prairieland when detainees were flown from Pennsylvania to the Dallas areas before Easter. That’s why RAICES is asking for transfers to stop and for the release of detainees, de Haro said.

“It is dangerous to have these individuals detained together,” de Haro said. “I fear not only for the safety of my client but the others detained as well.”

Safety concerns have also caused nonprofits to curtail, or at least alter, how some of their work is performed, Catholic Charities of Dallas ran a legal orientation service five times a week at Prairieland but that was suspended in mid-March as coronavirus precautions began in Texas. Now, orientations are by video and lawyers face the challenge of viewing detainee documents held up to a screen by the Prairieland detainee, rather than scouring the papers in person.

“It is not ideal,” said Luis Arango, who runs the Catholic Charities program. One-on-one consultations by phone are challenging because other detainees can hear details, too, eroding privacy, he said. Arango worries, as well, about the new transfers and how they might be infected.


The Prairieland Detention Center opened in 2017 in Alvarado, off the main highway and down a gravel road named Sunflower Lane near a neighborhood of mobile homes. The 707-bed facility is operated by LaSalle Corrections, a private firm based in Rushton, La. LaSalle operates more than two dozen jails, prisons and detention centers in five states with a holding capacity of about 17,000, according to its website.

According to ICE data, about a fourth of its coronavirus cases are in LaSalle Corrections facilities at five locations.

LaSalle has repeatedly declined to comment on its detention centers.

But an ICE spokeswoman said that before the transfer from Pike County earlier in April, the detainees were “screened for COVID-19” and that included temperature checks, and they didn’t present any symptoms.

It wasn’t clear whether the screening included actual lab tests for the coronavirus.

Those detainees who “meet CDC criteria for epidemiological risk” of exposure to the virus are housed separately from the general detainee population, ICE said.

“ICE transports individuals with moderate to severe symptoms, or those who require higher levels of care or monitoring, to appropriate hospitals with expertise in high-risk care,” an ICE spokeswoman said.

Some family members of detainees said they are being told there isn’t enough soap and masks for Prairieland staff.

Jamie Moore, an emergency management official from Johnson County, where Alvarado is located, told county commissioners at a meeting that he took a donation of 300 N95 masks to Prairieland, and another 150 masks were given to the Alvarado-based doctor who tends to the detainee population.

The ICE spokeswoman said there were “comprehensive protocols” in place for the protection of staff and patients, including appropriate use of personal protective equipment in accordance with CDC guidance. There is soap for the shower and bathrooms, hand soap for sink washing and alcohol-based sanitizer in various locations, the spokeswoman said.

The spread of the coronavirus has made Frania Blandon frantic since her Colombian-born husband was placed in detention nearly two months ago. She said her husband, Luis Buitrago, looks anxious when he has a videoconference with her from Prairieland. She worries about his fever and his growing depression.

“Their crime is that they want a better future,” his wife said. “They are humans. Just because they are infected with coronavirus is not their fault.”

His Philadelphia attorney, Wayne Sachs, said he believed his clients would be released in Philadelphia because a federal judge there had just ruled that 22 people at the Pike and York county jails should be released due to coronavirus risks connected with diabetes and asthma.

“To me it is not a coincidence that the day after the lawsuit was ruled in favor of detainees, they transfer 20 guys in the middle of night to Texas,” Sachs said.

Margarita Carcamo, the younger sister of a detainee from Pennsylvania, said her brother Lee Espinosa told her few people wear masks at Prairieland. “He says he kept hearing guards complaining and saying, ‘Why did they bring people who were infected?’” Carcamo said.

Christine McKoy, a Philadelphia nursing assistant, shares Carcamo’s concerns. Her 51-year-old, Jamaican-born brother Richard McKoy was transferred from the Pike County jail to Prairieland. But he contracted the coronavirus.

Her brother told her many lack masks there. “I would assume the whole place is contaminated with that virus. … You don’t want to add to this pandemic,” she said.

Jasmine Pichardo’s 40-year-old husband Alton Joseph was also transferred from Pike county to Prairieland in the middle of the night “in shackles,” she said. The native of St. Vincent and the Grenadines worked as a mechanic in Norristown, Pa., before being detained.

At Prairieland, her husband doesn’t have enough soap and was sharing a room with other sick immigrants, she said. Her husband told her guards don’t want to serve food to the detainees because they are afraid of who might be infected.

Her husband hasn’t tested positive with the virus, though. She is particularly angry because she believed her husband would be released under the federal judge’s order in Pennsylvania. Two days before, her husband was taken to Prairieland.

“He is a good man,” Pichardo, a U.S. citizen, said by phone. “He has done nothing wrong. I am struggling without him. I just want him home,” said the mother of five.

Pichardo fears the worst, a death in the Texas detention center. “What are we supposed to do? Say goodbye by FaceTime?”


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