Immigrants who have spoken out against being sprayed with a toxic, industrial disinfectant at an ICE detention centre in California have faced retaliation, advocates said on Thursday.
Adelanto Immigrant Detention Facility, outside of Los Angeles, is reportedly dousing detainees with HDQ Neutral, a potent chemical which has been linked to birth defects and asthma, as a coronavirus prevention measure.
The chemical is only supposed to be used outdoors or in well-ventilated areas while wearing protective gloves, clothing and eye and face protection, according to manufacturer Spartan Chemical Company.
Guards have been spraying the disinfectant every 15-30 minutes around the clock in confined units, said Kimberly Galindo, of Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice, during a press conference.
Immigrants had told advocates that chemicals are being sprayed in close proximity and sometimes directly at them.
Some of those being held were coughing up blood and developing blisters, nausea, migraines and eye irritation as a result of the exposure to HDQ Neutral, said Paula Kahn, from Freedom for Immigrants, whose organisation filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Homeland Security inspector general in May.
The Adelanto facility is run by GEO Group, a private prison operator, under contract from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Raul Garcia, legislative director of Healthy Communities at environmental law non-profit Earthjustice, said that guards had protective clothing but none was provided to the immigrants.
“This abuse is part of larger narrative of exploitation of immigrants across the country by ICE and the contractors that it hires,” he said.
One of the whistleblowers, José Tapete, who has been held at Adelanto for two years, had faced backlash for reporting alleged misuse of the disinfectant, according to advocates.
ICE had attempted to expedite the deportation of Mr Tapete on Monday, despite the fact that he has a case pending with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, before supporters intervened, Ms Galindo said. Mr Tapete faces being deported to Mexico despite having no family or connections in the country.
Ms Galindo said that ICE and GEO retaliate against people inside the facility in different ways, including with delayed bond hearings and placing them in solitary confinement if they seek medical attention for coronavirus symptoms.
“From intimidation to direct retaliation, immigrants continue to face increasing threats to their lives and to their health,” said advocates from the Shut Down Adelanto Coalition which has called for all immigrants to be released from the detention centre.
Another letter, sent by 11 women housed at Adelanto, was read by Guillermo Torres, an organiser with Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice, during the Zoom conference.
“The GEO officers are using this chemical when we are eating or using the phone. All detainees are having allergy, throat problems, nose bleeding, or difficulties breathing,” it read.
“We are in an enclosed area, no air, no natural light, the HDQ Neutral is accumulating and the only air we breathe. We have complained but nothing is done by GEO officers.”
Detainees have made dozens of complaints but ICE and GEO have continued to deny the harm being caused "and have consistently attempted to undermine any and all attempts to expose their danger”, according to the coalition.
There have also been accusations that immigrants are being held without access to medical services at Adelanto as Covid-19 continues to spread. At least ten coronavirus cases have been reported at the facility, according to the Desert Sun.
Democratic Congressman Mark Takano, who represents California's 41st congressional district, has sought answers from ICE regarding the use of toxic agents at the facility. He expressed concern on Thursday that immigrants were being targeted.
“I’m troubled by reports that there’s been retaliation against detainees who have spoken up, that their bond hearings have been delayed as a result or that their deportations have been expedited,” he said.
He noted that the pandemic should have resulted in bond hearings being accelerated in order to have people moved out of shared living facilities that place both detainees and staff, along with the wider community they return to, at increased risk. Detention centres and prisons, along with nursing and care homes, have become Covid-19 hotspots across the US.
“A rational policy would be to minimise the number of people in detention and we have to realise that immigration detention facilities are not the same as state and federal prisons. The people in detention have violated immigration law but not necessarily criminal laws,” Rep Takano added.
A scientific report, produced by Earthjustice, found that exposure to chemicals in the same class as HDQ Neutral can lead to asthma after long-term exposure. According to the CDC, asthma is linked to complications from the coronavirus. Even low levels of exposure to the same class of chemicals was linked to respiratory irritation, inflammation, infertility and birth defects, even after active exposure.
Mr Garcia said: “The irony here is that the very disinfectant that GEO Group and ICE think is fighting Covid-19 is part of a class of chemicals associated with respiratory conditions and may make the immigrants in Adelanto more vulnerable to Covid-19 itself.
“The crowded and closed conditions in Adelanto, along with the fact that immigrants in detention do not have protective equipment, render the use of HDQ Neutral not only highly problematic, but also grossly illegal."
Border detention centres have become a ghoulish hallmark of the Trump administration, in particular after a large number of unaccompanied minors were detained on crossing the southern border from Central America in 2018.
At a House Homeland Security Committee hearing last year, Chairman Bennie Thompson and Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman questioned then Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen over whether migrant children at the border with Mexico were being kept in "cages."
"We never purposefully put a child in a cage,” Ms Nielsen responded.
At the Adelanto facility, there have been accusations that immigrants are being held without access to medical services, amid growing concern over the number of deaths in ICE custody.
On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported that Adelanto had received about 1,900 Covid-19 test kits but that ICE officials refused to allow the vast majority of them to be used. The non-profit filed a lawsuit against ICE for violating CDC guidelines for custodial institutions, noting that "the refusal to give tests to people who are symptomatic of the virus infection is... medically and morally repugnant”.
Last year, the Trump administration awarded billions of dollars in contracts for private companies to operate immigration detention centres in California, just ahead of a state law that was enacted to prohibit them.
California Governor Gavin Newsom had signed a bill in October 2019 to ban contracts for for-profit prisons starting 1 January. Supporters hoped the law would force ICE to look elsewhere after current contracts expire.
A combined $6.8 billion was awarded for California detention facilities including Adelanto. The sites will house about 4,000 detainees, with capacity to expand in the future.
In a statement to The Independent, a spokesperson for The GEO Group said: “We categorically deny these allegations. As a long-standing service provider to the federal government, GEO plays no role in decisions related the assignment, transfer, or release of individuals at ICE Processing Centers or in the adjudication of immigration cases. Such decisions are made exclusively by the federal government and the courts. We would refer you U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for any further questions.”
ICE told The Independent: "Detainees are afforded the opportunity at any point to file a complaint directly to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Detention and Reporting Information Line (DRIL) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) about staff misconduct, physical or sexual abuse, civil rights violations, or unresolved problems in detention. These policies include guarantees against any form of reprisal or retaliation."
Wires contributed to this report