RALEIGH — Unlike many mothers, this year Lesly Zelaya had an unremarkable Mother’s Day, spending hours running errands alone and then staying home with her four children, not doing much of anything in particular.
In her moments alone, she thought of Mother’s Day the year before: waking up to a bouquet of roses from her husband, Mauricio and going out for dinner with her family.
But this year — her husband, a longtime Raleigh resident and an immigrant from Honduras — is gone.
Mauricio Flores is incarcerated over 500 miles away in rural Lumpkin, Ga., inside one of the largest immigration detention centers in the U.S. There, he and over a thousand other detainees face a coronavirus outbreak within its confines.
“I’m not well,” Zelaya, 47, said in Spanish to The News & Observer. On Mother’s Day “my kids knew that we weren’t doing anything that day because of my husband.”
Like the families of thousands of detainees in the United States, Zelaya is dealing with having a family member detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement inside the Stewart Detention Center, where COVID-19 has infected detainees and staff.
Flores was detained by ICE in Raleigh in late February at a routine probation check-in. He had been sentenced to probation after a drunk-driving conviction in 2018.
Calling his wife last month from the detention center on a static-filled phone connection that costs 80 cents a minute, he told her he was feeling sick.
On Tuesday, nearly 70 N.C. faith leaders, including five in Greensboro, sent a letter to the state’s congressional delegation urging them to take action to protect the 13 N.C. residents detained at the Stewart site.
‘All the time, I am scared’
Flores had COVID-19 symptoms: fever and body aches for two weeks in a place where social distancing is virtually impossible in cells with bunk beds or inside shared dorms. Requests for medical attention can be delayed, Flores told his wife, and he said he didn’t receive pain relievers he requested.
These experiences inside Stewart during the outbreak echo those of detainees and family members interviewed for this story, along with reporting by other news media.
“All the time, all the time, I am scared,” Flores, 42, later told The N&O by phone in Spanish from inside Stewart. He said that there were “many people” with symptoms and he himself was recovering from those symptoms.
“I’m not here for being a killer,” he said. “I’m here for a small mistake that I’m paying a big price for.”
That price includes not being able to provide financially for his family as the primary income-earner.
Zelaya said she ran a general contracting business with her husband, who was the sole worker as a handyman installing ceramic tile floors.
Her car was repossessed after defaulting on payments, she said, and she’s had to apply for food stamps. A U.S. permanent resident, she received tax returns and a federal stimulus check, but she said she still owes rent on her home and has had to pay legal expenses for her husband.
Money raised by Siembra NC, an immigrant rights organization, has helped her. Siembra NC told The N&O they’re currently in touch with 13 families across the state with loved ones detained in Stewart, including Zelaya’s.
There’s added trauma on Zelaya, since her family is still mourning the death of her 24-year-old son Jorge. He was found killed in June in a park with stab wounds and his throat slit, according to an ABC 11 report. Zelaya said she still doesn’t know who killed her son.
“I have to have my 5-year-old daughter in therapy,” Zelaya said. “She cries a lot about her dad, she wakes up scared at night searching for him, she doesn’t eat much and she gets depressed. From the moment that ICE took my husband, they tore my family down.”
Crying in an interview, Zelaya wished for authorities to release her husband. She hopes the needs of their daughter, who was born in the U.S., can help Flores’ case for a suspension of deportation later this month.
Immigrants in deportation proceedings can qualify for “cancellation of removal” under strict criteria, according to the Immigration and Nationality Act: residing in the U.S. longer than 10 years; having “good moral character;” and if deportation would result in “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” to the detainees’ U.S. citizen family members.
When immigrants who are in the country illegally are detained in North Carolina, they are held in state processing centers like the Alamance County Detention Center before being sent to Stewart, since North Carolina has no detention center with an immigration court.
Stewart is often the last stop for immigrants before they’re deported.
Marty Rosenbluth, an immigration lawyer who currently represents around 20 Stewart detainees — including several from North Carolina — says most detainees are there for non-violent offenses and have been in the U.S. for years or decades.
Immigrants will get detained by ICE after being arrested for crimes from months or even years earlier, like driving without a license or driving while impaired, or having previous deportation orders.
For some immigrants, “if you go to your probation meeting, then you risk getting picked up by ICE. If you don’t go, then you’re a fugitive and you can get picked up that way,” Rosenbluth said in an interview with The N&O.
In Stewart Detention Center
As of May 9, ICE reported that there were 16 positive COVID-19 detainee cases and two ICE staff cases at the facility. Nationally, 965 detainees have tested positive and only 2,045 have been tested out of almost 28,000.
An investigation into Stewart by WNYC (93.9 FM) and The Intercept reported that by the end of April, 44 staff members of the private company CoreCivic that runs the facility were infected. They are separate from staff hired by ICE at the facility.
Court filings from an April 9 lawsuit against ICE and Stewart filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center indicated that at least 30 additional detainees were presumptive positive cases.
After a federal judge’s order for ICE to consider releasing detainees with high-risk health conditions and factors, the incarcerated people at Stewart dropped to around 1,200 in early May from nearly 1,900, CBS News reported.
Rosenbluth has worked out of Lumpkin, where Stewart is located, as part of the Durham-based firm Polanco Law for three years.
Knowing of the outbreak inside and personally seeing what he considered too few guards wearing protective gear until around a month ago, he says he’s not assured that detainees or staff are as safe as they could be.
He worries that the dozens of guards inside who have tested positive for COVID-19 have spread the virus outside Stewart and possibly to other guards who haven’t gotten sick yet.
Some of his clients have tried to make masks out of towels, he said. Detainees said to him that single-use masks were distributed only when leaving their jail units and weren’t being worn by detainees inside their units.
Pedro Ramirez, a Greensboro resident from Mexico, had been in probation for a year after being convicted for a DWI when ICE detained him and sent him to Stewart in February.
He was released from Stewart on April 10 and spoke about what he saw on the inside, including that he wasn’t given a mask until the day before he left, he said.
In March before an outbreak was confirmed there, he said he participated in a hunger strike to demand masks and more protections in detention.
“We said that the fear we had is that ICE keeps bringing people in here and if you bring someone infected, we’re practically screwed,” Ramirez, 38, said in Spanish in an N&O interview.
Ramirez described that detainees who showed strong coronavirus symptoms were put in the “hole” or solitary confinement so they’d be isolated from others.
He was released on bond relatively quickly with the help of a lawyer.
Siembra NC assisted his fiancee, a citizen, in finding a lawyer and raising funds for legal expenses.
How authorities are responding
CoreCivic’s statements on their COVID-19 response contradict the claims made by detainees in Stewart and in the Otay Mesa, California, detention center, which they also operate.
The Otay Mesa Detention Center has the largest outbreak of all immigration jails in the U.S with more than 149 detainee cases there, according to ICE.
CoreCivic spokesperson Amanda Gilchrist told The N&O that the company is following general Centers for Disease Control guidelines as part of a coronavirus medical action plan.
“Since even before any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our facilities, we have rigorously followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities, as well as our government partners,” said Gilchrist. “We have responded to this unprecedented situation appropriately, thoroughly and with care for the safety and well-being of those entrusted to us and our communities.”
The plan outlined on their website identifies high-risk detainees and isolates them, directs staff to encourage social distancing, screens employees before entering the facility, and is working with local and state health departments to conduct testing.
ICE’s own coronavirus guidelines on their website say detainees in ICE custody with severe symptoms are sent to hospitals.
Those who are asymptomatic and come in contact with someone with confirmed COVID-19 are quarantined in “cohorts” and monitored for symptoms. Detainees who meet CDC criteria for high-risk may be isolated in a single cell or as a group, “depending on available space.”
However, CDC guidelines say people exposed should be put in individual, not group, quarantine. Cohort quarantine, the CDC says, should be done as a last resort.
The CDC says “cohorting multiple quarantined close contacts of a COVID-19 case could transmit COVID-19 from those who are infected to those who are uninfected.”
The recent SPLC lawsuit filed against Stewart and ICE calls for the release of medically vulnerable detainees at Stewart including the eight detainees with underlying health conditions who are named petitioners.
According to recent Georgia court filings posted online by the SPLC, the lawsuit’s petitions have been partly denied. On May 28, a hearing will be held on the motion for the lawsuit.
The lawsuit states that Stewart is at least one hour away from two hospitals that would have an adequate level of care, one of which is overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and the other with no long-term ICU beds.
Mothers left alone
Ana Castillo, a Franklinton mother who has been in North Carolina for over a decade, also spent Mother’s Day this year with no celebrations. Her husband, a Mexican immigrant like her, is detained inside Stewart as well.
Liborio Rodriguez, a Mexican immigrant, was detained by ICE after showing up for a routine probation appointment after a DUI arrest while driving a moped without a helmet on. Rodriguez has been detained since September.
“Sometimes I cry, sometimes I am happy and sometimes I can’t explain to you how I feel,” Castillo, 38, said in Spanish in an interview with The N&O.
Castillo’s North Carolina-born daughters, 10 and 8 years old, have struggled through deep emotional trauma and received therapy after their father was taken away, she said.
Though she used to stay at home to care for her children, she’s said she’s turned to domestic work cleaning homes and a part-time custodian job paying $10 an hour.
Both of the spouses of detainees interviewed for this story temporarily lost contact with their husbands last month. In early April, detainees protested over lack of medical attention and a poor quality and quantity of food, which caused a “lockdown” that shut off outside communication.
WNYC and The Intercept reported this month on the lockdown and found that it involved tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray.
In an April 23 letter addressed to his brother Eulalio that Rodriguez mailed to his wife, he listed the complaints of detainees:
“1. A lack of good nutrition in adequate schedules. 2. Lack of medical attention, since many of my peers including me have made requests for medical attention over two weeks ago and we haven’t been attended to. Many of us have been with a fever and pain all over our bodies. 3. A lack of hygiene in our unit, we don’t have necessary cleaning supplies.”
The Rodriguez case was reported by Mexico City newspaper La Jornada this month.
Rodriguez’s brother Eulalio, who lives in New York City, said in an interview with The N&O that his brother had already accepted in a “voluntary departure” in court to be deported to Mexico by plane.
The process has been delayed for reasons unclear to them, but Eulalio believes it’s due to the virus.
“He needs to do a proper quarantine, that’s why we’re asking for his release,” he said in Spanish. “If my brother has the coronavirus, we don’t know.”