Tired of working “just to survive” in Brazil, carpenter Paulo Passos, 39, decided to try a better life in the United States last year. He had already lived “in America” from 2004 to 2015 and knew the way to enter, even without documents. Accompanied by a friend, he traveled to the Mexico-Texas border and crossed on December 26th.
On reaching the other side, however, he was caught by the border police. He spent six months in detention in three immigration prisons. During this period, the Covid-19 pandemic broke out.
In a short time, the health emergency that Paulo followed on TV materialized in the cell where he was, at the Otero County Processing Center, in New Mexico. Of the 32 detained in that room in early May, 23 were diagnosed with coronavirus, including him and another Brazilian.
According to data from the ICE (US Department of Immigration and Customs Control), by October 4, 152 detainees there had been infected – more than 10% of the 1,089 that fit the scene.
According to Paulo, preventive care was flawed. With bunks fixed to the floor, it was impossible to make social distance. Masks were only distributed days after the first cases.
The first symptomatic contamination in his cell occurred on May 1, when an immigrant was taken ill and never returned. Then, an Ecuadorian had a fever of 40ºC for three days, without anything being done, according to the Brazilian.
“We had to rebel and go on a hunger strike, pressuring them to serve him,” he says. The patient went to the prison clinic, where he spent 17 days.
With bronchitis and a history of three pneumonias, Paulo was afraid that his lung would be hit by Covid-19, but the only symptom he manifested was chest pain.
He was placed in isolation in one of the “punishment rooms”, as the solitary was called. He stayed there for 12 days, leaving only 20 minutes to bathe.
“Everything I say is not enough to describe what I went through there”, says. “We didn’t have access to medicines, in the sun. The guards torture us, they treat us like dogs. ”
Paulo was deported on a chartered flight by the American government on June 19, just days after Brazil became the second country with the most deaths by Covid-19 in the world. The first was already the USA.
According to ICE data, more than 6,300 immigrants arrested had their disease confirmed — 677 were active cases on 4 October. Eight died, two of them since September. Currently, there are nearly 20,000 detainees in the agency’s custody.
ICE did not say how many of those affected are Brazilian. THE leaf heard of at least six cases, and three of them agreed to tell their stories.
The agency said that since the beginning of the pandemic it has protected inmates and staff, with suspension of visits, distance from meals and occupation of centers limited to 70%, with a 44% reduction in the number of prisoners between March and August.
The statement also states that the ICE “has been impacted by the pandemic” like other agencies and that testing resources were limited, but the number of tests “has grown significantly” since July.
For experts, the figures released by the agency are underestimated, due to the lack of tests and the failure to count people who are contaminated in prisons, but die after being released. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, which created an epidemiological model simulating Covid-19’s behavior in these detention centers, in May the number of infected people could be up to 15 times higher than the official.
According to the International Rescue Committee, the proportion of positives in the tests performed by the ICE from February to August was 20%, up to three times higher than in the USA in general. In a prison in Virginia, the rate reached 80% of inmates tested in July.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, activists and health experts have been warning of the high risk that the virus could spread in these prisons and pressing the American government to improve sanitary conditions and to release vulnerable detainees.
In March, two doctors from the Department of Homeland Security wrote a letter to Congress predicting an overload if nothing was done. Days later, ICE released the first confirmed case among detainees. On May 6, he announced the first to die: a 57-year-old Salvadoran.
Some cases ended up in court, such as that of a center in California that was forced to do weekly tests on prisoners after a judge ruled that there was “deliberate indifference to the risk of an outbreak”.
In May, the New Mexico state secretary of health made an appeal to the central government, concerned by the reports she received from the prison where the Brazilian Paulo stayed: lack of disinfection material, unwashed sheets for a month and impossibility of social distance . She said she tried to offer test kits to directors, but received no response – which ICE denies.
The separation of patients into tiny solitary women, something that happened to Paulo, was condemned by human rights organizations, including for discouraging other detainees from reporting symptoms.
The Freedom for Immigrants group has received more than a dozen reports, from six different states, of infected people placed in cells designed to punish violent detainees. Some of them, without bath or medical care. One interviewee said that when he returned from the hospital, still weak and unable to even stand, he was dumped in a cold, dirty cell for two weeks.
The transfer of immigrants from one center to another is also criticized by experts, who say the practice may have contributed to spreading the virus to prisons across the country. According to the ICE, these trips continued, in part, to take detainees from crowded centers to more empty ones, favoring social distance.
Evanilson Sousa Gomes, 34, went through this. Before being deported to Brazil, he was taken in a van with five other immigrants from the Elizabeth Detention Center, in New Jersey, to the Philadelphia airport. There, he took an internal flight with 24 people to Louisiana, from where he embarked for Belo Horizonte. According to him, there was no social distance at any time during the trip.
He had been in the USA for eight months, with his wife and two children. He was detained in February and had Covid-19 in April in prison. He says he was only isolated from the 34 other members of his cell two days after he started to have symptoms and that they only received masks after pressure from lawyers.
In their sector, immigrants from Africa and Guatemala fell ill first. Another Brazilian who shared a cell with Evanilson got infected in the same week. A guard died after being infected, he said. “They did not take the necessary care. We just don’t die because thank God our health is good. ”
Whoever got more serious was released, he says. “They didn’t take them to the hospital, they just let them out on the street.”
Evanilson only told his wife about the illness after he left. ”What worried me most was my family. I was in there and I couldn’t do anything. ”
With vomiting, high fever and convulsions, the Brazilian Laércio also suffered from the lack of care before and after catching Covid-19, says his wife. “He had to wear a wet shirt against the fever,” says Márcia, who agreed to give an interview, as long as her and her husband’s names were changed. “He only received a mask after we fought a lot, and until then he wore a sock on his nose to protect himself.”
According to his report, in the middle of a seizure, Laércio collapsed and had a trunk injury that has not improved so far. He had lived in the USA for more than 15 years and was arrested in February after a traffic violation. At least two more Brazilians became infected in the same prison as him.
According to Márcia, after the illness, Laércio had to be hospitalized several times with vomiting, fainting and shortness of breath. In one of these, after days without news, she managed to locate him in a hospital, but was not allowed to see him. The next day, he was deported. He faced 26 hours of travel, handcuffed and vomiting during flights.
“He was very ill,” says the wife. “He was a healthy man before he entered that hell. He came out sick, traumatized. He almost died inside. ”
Flights of deportees “exported” Covid-19 to Latin American countries
Since October last year, 20 chartered deportation flights have arrived in Brazil. Fifteen of them occurred after March — while experts and governments, including those in the US and Brazil, recommended avoiding non-essential travel during that period, ICE flights continued.
The failure by the US to stop deportations has sparked internal and external criticism. In Guatemala, the high Covid-19 rate among immigrants who arrived on these planes caused the government to stop receiving flights for a while. In Colombia, newcomers undergo mandatory quarantine at a military base, and tests have detected the disease in part of them.
In Brazil, it is difficult to know if there were cases because the control of international passengers after their arrival is weak: travelers do not undergo mandatory quarantine or Covid-19 tests. What is done is to send passengers who voluntarily report having any symptoms to the airport medical post.
On deported flights, no one came forward with a suspicion of the disease, according to Anvisa (National Health Surveillance Agency). The agency does not measure the temperature of passengers, stating that the effectiveness of the measure is uncertain, according to scientific literature. His recommendations for airports and airlines include reinforcing cleanliness and recommending the use of masks for travelers and employees.
There is also no accompanying of passengers in the first 14 days after arrival, as recommended by the WHO. THE leaf interviewed deportees who flew on March 6, May 15, June 19 and July 17 and all said they had not received this type of contact. Most also did not comply with voluntary quarantine at home.
According to the testimonies, preventive care on the first flights was minimal and improved over time. Even so, some failures were repeated in all of them: for example, the lack of distance between passengers, even when there was plenty of room. One of the interviewees said that there was no water in the aircraft’s toilet.
On July 1, the American ambassador Michael Kozak gave a statement to a committee of the US Congress including Brazil among countries with immigrants who had Covid-19 after disembarking from ICE flights.
According to him, of the more than 37,000 deportees to Latin America from March to June, 220 were diagnosed with the disease – more than 190 of them in Guatemala and the rest in Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Jamaica, Haiti and Brazil.
According to the CEPR (Center for Economic and Policy Research), which has been following ICE’s “Covid-19 exports” to other countries, the US initially only checked the temperature of deportees before traveling. After a few months, they started to do Covid-19 tests in some of them, but ICE itself recognized that it only has the capacity to test a sample of the deportees.
CEPR researcher Jake Johnston told the leaf that cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in deportees from at least nine destinations —Mexico, Colombia, Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, El Salvador, Guatemala, India and Romania. “Given this scenario, it is clear that deportees with Covid-19 are likely to have arrived in other countries as well. But these countries have been more successful in keeping it a secret, ”he said.
The destination of the deportees’ aircraft in Brazil has been the airport of Confins, in Belo Horizonte. From late March to early August, international flights were suspended there, and ICE’s were the only ones to disembark.
Upon arriving, despite being exhausted after handcuffed hours and frustrated by not being able to live the “American dream”, many celebrated at least leaving behind the trials that they lived in prisons for immigrants.
“Not even if I tell you can you imagine what we are going through inside,” says Camila de Oliveira, 20, who was caught with her mother and aunt when trying to enter the USA and arrived in Brazil on a deportee flight in March . “It is the worst thing. They massacre you psychologically. ”
Márcia, Laércio’s wife, says that her husband is “groundless” of having had to leave the USA after more than a decade. “But I’m more relaxed because thank God he came out of this suffering”, he says. “It was very humiliating, exhausting, inhuman. They mistreat immigrants a lot. ”