First COVID-19 related death in immigration detention: “This death was preventable, full stop”

For Immediate Release: 
Wednesday, May 6, 2020

San Diego, CA— In response to the first COVID-19 related death of a detained person at the CoreCivic operated Otay Mesa Detention Center in California, immigrant rights advocates issued the following statements:

Pedro Rios, Director of the American Friends Service Committee’s US-Mexico Border Program in San Diego, said: 

“We are saddened and outraged that a person detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego County has died with complications related to COVID-19.  For months, advocates have been raising concerns that the detention facility would exacerbate deadly conditions for those it detains.  People detained at the facility have held hunger strikes because they were not provided with adequate supplies of face masks or soap, and the nutritional quality of their food has significantly diminished since CoreCivic closed down the kitchen.  In response, CoreCivic fired chemical agents at detainees for raising concerns.

We hold ICE and CoreCivic responsible for this preventable death.  Our state and federal elected officials need to do more to hold ICE and CoreCivic accountable for this death, for their disgraceful treatment of detainees, and to protect the lives of those unable to physically distance themselves while detained.  The only reasonable and humane response at this moment is for everyone detained to be released.”

Silky Shah, Executive Director of Detention Watch Network, said:

“This death was preventable, full stop. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) knew the probability of a COVID-19 related death grew with each passing day, and still they did nothing to stop this tragic loss of life — the evidence was all there. People at Otay Mesa have been speaking out and protesting their incarceration amid the rising spread of the virus at the facility, including going on hunger strike to demonstrate the level of fear that exists and the urgent need to be released from detention now.

Thousands of doctors and hundreds of advocates have also been urgently sounding the alarm to release people from detention since early March, knowing that the detention system is notorious for its fatally flawed medical care and abysmal conditions that only worsen in times of crisis. Even the former acting director of ICE, John Sandweg, has called for the release of people in detention.

It was only a matter of time until COVID-19 outbreaks occurred in detention and people lost their lives, and even with this reality, ICE intentionally chose to look the other way and do nothing. ICE is complicit in this loss of life. Detention Watch Network demands an immediate investigation by the Office of Inspector General and the immediate release of people from ICE detention. Governor Newsom and members of Congress must take action now to stop ICE from continuing to jeopardize lives in detention during the pandemic.This death was preventable. Now, more than ever, we see the importance of ending this arbitrary and inhumane system of detention. ICE must act immediately to release all people from detention now to ensure no further loss of life occurs.”

Dr. Ranit Mishori, Senior Medical Advisor at Physicians for Human Rights, and Professor of Family Medicine at Georgetown University said:

“This heartbreaking tragedy could have been prevented had ICE, DHS, and CBP heeded the recommendations of medical experts and acted in time. Thousands of doctors, advocates, and even the former acting head of ICE have been sounding the alarm for months about the grave risks of immigration detention amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The government cannot say it did not know this would happen.

Meanwhile, more than 30,000 people are still being held in immigration detention centers, with no meaningful ability to social distance or practice meticulous hygiene. If ICE wants this tragic COVID-19 death to be an outlier rather than the new normal, it must act now to release detainees on humanitarian and public health grounds. All people deserve to shelter in place with their families rather than be confined to the potential death traps of ICE detention facilities.”

Andrew Free, Immigration & Civil Rights Attorney, #DetentionKills Network said:

“We mourn this tragic and utterly preventable loss. It does not have to be this way. ICE did not have to strip away our fellow human’s freedom to carry out its mission. This is a deliberate choice. We as a society did not have to put our fellow in a cage. Indeed, we cannot. Because #DetentionKills.

Congress must reassert meaningful accountability without further delay. An agency whose leadership cannot stop fatal errors like this one from happening — one that cannot even admit on the record that failures happened in the first place — cannot be entrusted with the health and safety of those in its custody. 

But we do not simply mourn and grieve this tragic theft of life in this perilous moment. Together, we connect and share and build collective power to demand accountability and to end this deadly system once and for all. As nearly a dozen families of people who’ve lost their lives to DHS lockups, and in solidarity with a worldwide community of migrants, refugees, advocates, organizers, artists, lawyers, experts, and policy-makers who’ve got our back and dare to dream and builds a world where humans no longer go in cages, we pledge to ensure this person’s life is honored with dignity and humanity, and that this senseless tragedy can shed light on a deadly system crying out for abolition.”

Read Detention Watch Network’s new report: Courting Catastrophe: How ICE is Gambling with Immigrant Lives Amid a Global Pandemic.


Detention Watch Network (DWN) is a national coalition of organizations and individuals building power through collective advocacy, grassroots organizing, and strategic communications to abolish immigration detention in the United States. Founded in 1997 by immigrant rights groups, DWN brings together advocates to unify strategy and build partnerships on a local and national level. Visit Follow @DetentionWatch.