Originally Published in The Washington Post
Antonio Olivo and Gregory S. Schneider - July 29, 2020
The outbreak at the Farmville Detention Center is the largest at any such facility in the country, with 262 undocumented immigrants there being monitored after testing positive for the coronavirus, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
A federal lawsuit brought by immigrant rights groups blames the outbreak — nearly three times larger than the next-biggest inside a center — on crowded sleeping conditions and infrequent testing.
In a July 22 letter sent to the president, Northam (D) requested that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention intervene at Farmville, particularly with what his office says has been a lack of testing among the facility’s staff members, who can potentially spread the virus to other parts of the state where they live.
Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said this week that about eight staff members from the center tested positive after seeking tests outside the facility.
“Virginians in congregate housing, such as the Farmville facility, are especially vulnerable to COVID-19,” Northam said in the letter, a copy of which The Washington Post obtained this week. “To ensure the safety of those who live and work in the Farmville Detention Center, as well as the surrounding community, I request that the CDC respond to and assess the situation at the facility.”
Both of Virginia’s U.S. senators on Wednesday also called on the Trump administration to act, calling Farmville a “dire situation.”
The outbreak “presents a clear risk to individuals within the facility, but also endangers the broader community as facility staff and released detainees have interaction with the general public,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D) and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) wrote in a joint statement.
Yarmosky said Tuesday that the agency has indicated to the state that it is willing to get involved. CDC officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Seven detainees suffering from covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, have been taken to a hospital for care, according to the Virginia Health Department, and all but one have returned to the facility. No staffers have been hospitalized, according to the Health Department.
According to one Northam administration official, the Virginia Health Department offered to conduct testing at the facility on July 21 in partnership with the state’s National Guard. A few days before the planned event, the facility canceled it, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive subject.
The state made the same offer a few days ago, the official said, but was rebuffed. The official did not know why the facility canceled or declined the testing.
Immigration Centers of America referred questions from The Post to ICE. The federal agency said in a statement that medical checks are done twice a day inside the facility, including a temperature screening and medication when needed.
The outbreak in Farmville has prompted ICE to boost efforts to protect all undocumented immigrants in custody from being infected by providing them face masks, adding hand-washing stations inside detention centers and, most recently, ramping up testing, the agency said.
The majority of those housed at the Farmville facility who tested positive earlier this month were asymptomatic, and all of them received “appropriate medical care,” ICE said in its statement, without describing what type of treatment was administered.
“Detainees who tested negative will be retested and are being held separately from positive detainees,” the agency said.
Virginia has “limited ability” to act on the outbreak itself because the state does not license ICE detention centers, the governor’s office said — a position disputed by immigrant advocates seeking more aggressive action.
The governor’s letter came on the heels of a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of four detainees last week that paints a grim picture of conditions inside the detention center, alleging that new residents are brought in without being tested for the virus, forced to sleep in crowded dorm rooms with little ventilation and, when sick with a fever or cough, treated primarily with little more than Tylenol. Requests for doctors “fell on deaf ears,” the lawsuit alleges.
Two of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs say they contracted the coronavirus in Farmville while awaiting the outcome of appeals by the Trump administration of immigration court decisions that allowed them to remain in the United States, according to the suit, which was filed in federal court in Alexandria.
“The bunk beds are so close to each other that it feels like we are practically sleeping in the same bed,” Christian Alberto Santos Garcia, one of the two, said in a court filing that also described how he is awaiting an outcome in his immigration case on claims that he was tortured in El Salvador.
“I believe that if the facility keeps being run in this way — no air conditioning, dust everywhere, dirty air, terrible food that we cannot eat, not being allowed doctor visits, not being given any medicine — I will not get better,” he said.
The lawsuit claims that ICE and Immigration Centers of America violated their own policy for controlling the virus at the facility when 74 undocumented immigrants were brought in from detention centers in Florida and Arizona in early June without first being tested for the coronavirus.
Both of the other facilities have had covid-19 cases, and 51 of the transferred detainees have since tested positive for the coronavirus, the lawsuit says.
The policy, implemented in April, required that anyone brought in would first be quarantined for 14 days inside a jail in Caroline County, about 100 miles away, according to the lawsuit.
In another court filing, Jeffrey Crawford, the Farmville center’s director, confirmed the change in course, explaining that the Caroline County facility couldn’t accommodate such a large group, so the 74 were sent directly to Farmville.
“When I was alerted to the detainees’ impending transfer, I inquired about their level of potential exposure to COVID-19 at their previous facilities,” Crawford said in the filing. “In response, ICE stated that there were no active COVID-19 cases at the Arizona facility and that there were very few cases at the Florida facility. There was no indication that ICA Farmville could not accommodate the needs of these transferees at that time.”
Since early June, the number of coronavirus cases in Prince Edward County, where most of the town of Farmville sits, have doubled to 289 as of Wednesday, a spike that includes the detention center outbreak, according to the state Health Department. Officials in Farmville, which has received a share of the detention center’s profits since the town entered into a 2008 intergovernmental agreement with ICE, didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Immigrant advocates began sounding alarms about a potential outbreak inside the Farmville facility in the spring, prompting Northam to attempt to intervene back then, though without success.
That letter didn’t generate a response from ICE, Yarmosky said. But Farmville’s local health department began working with the facility to conduct limited testing of some residents, she said.
More recently, the detention center told local health officials it has begun testing all of its residents, Yarmosky said, but staff members at the facility have been left to their own devices.
However, the Northam administration wants independent verification that both detainees and staff are getting tested, according to the administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Last week, amid worries about a resurgence of the coronavirus after a spike in cases in the Hampton Roads area, state and local health officials followed up on Northam’s letter with a flurry of phone calls pressing the CDC to take action. Immigrant advocates called the governor’s request for CDC involvement a positive move.
But they argue that state officials have had the authority to take more aggressive action.
Immigration Centers of America — part of a multibillion-dollar industry of private companies running immigration detention centers in the United States — owns and operates the site under a contract with Farmville signed after the town made its agreement with ICE.
Because the detention center isn’t on federal land or operated by the federal government, it falls under state jurisdiction, argued Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of the Immigrant Advocacy Program for the Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents some of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit.
“It exists as a local jail in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Sandoval-Moshenberg said of the Farmville facility. “Northam is treating it as if it were the Pentagon.”
Yarmosky, Northam’s spokeswoman, countered that the facility is under federal control “and the state is unable to enter . . . without consent from the detention center.” Even if allowed in, Yarmosky said, the state Health Department would have no power to order corrective measures and could only make recommendations.
“That’s why Governor Northam has been urging federal action for months,” she said, via text message. “Everyone in Virginia deserves protection, regardless of their immigration status.”