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Otay Mesa ICE Inmate Becomes First COVID-19 Death Among Detainees

Created: 06 May, 2020
Updated: 13 September, 2023
2 min read

A man from El Salvador being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracted the COVID-19 virus in the facility and died at a local hospital after being on a ventilator for nearly a week.

Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, 57, who was being held at the Otay Mesa facility, had been was one of 202 detainees there that have tested positive for the deadly virus.

The first confirmed COVID-19 case among ICE detainees was reported in late March, and ICE reports that 674 detainees have tested positive of 1,346 that have been tested. Of those, 124 cases are at the Otay Mesa facility. In addition to the detainee cases, 39 ICE employees have tested positive, including 10 at the Otay mesa center.

The Otay Mesa ICE Facility is run by CoreCivic, a private contractor that runs dozens of ICE detention centers and federal prison facilities throughout the country. This week CoreCivic reported that it had tested all the 2,725 inmates and staff at its Trousdale Turner facility in Tennessee, and found that 47% of them (1,299) and 50 staff were positive for COVID-19, and nearly all of them showed no symptoms of the virus.

On April 14th, La Prensa San Diego reported that the first COVID-19 case among detainees at the Otay Mesa facility had been reported.

Immigration rights advocates have complained that ICE and CoreCivic had not provided sufficient personal protection equipment )PPE) to detainees that are often in overcrowded facilities and cannot practice social distancing or other preventive measures to avoid becoming infected. Immigration advocates have called for ICE to release some detainees to prevent the spread of the virus in facilities.

“The heartbreaking tragedy at Otay Mesa could have been prevented had US immigration officials heeded the recommendations of medical experts and acted in time,” Dr. Ranit Mishori, a senior medical adviser for Physicians for Human Rights, wrote in a statement. “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.”

Although ICE has already released hundreds of detainees in recent weeks, approximately 30,000 detainees remain in ICE custody.

Escobar Mejia was one of four family member that came to the US in 1980 to escape El Salvador’s civil war. His two sisters have already become US citizens, but Carlos was not able to gain a green card. He was arrested in January for being an undocumented immigrant.

He had health conditions that made him extremely vulnerable to complications from the COVID-19 virus, including diabetes and effects from several operations that had led to having had his right foot amputated. He had received a blood transfusion on Tuesday, but he died early Wednesday morning.