Aurora immigration jail confirms first coronavirus cases among detainees

It joins the list of more than 50 jails, prisons and detention centers nationwide where someone in ICE custody tested positive with COVID-19.

GEO's Aurora Contract Detention Facility. Feb. 25, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

GEO's Aurora Contract Detention Facility. Feb. 25, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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On Thursday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confirmed the first two cases of COVID-19 in people held at its Aurora Contract Detention Facility. The jail, which is operated by Florida-based GEO Group, now joins a list of more than 50 locations across the country where incarcerated immigrants have tested positive.

The family of Oscar Perez-Aguirre, a Mexican national who immigration activists warned was sick earlier in the week, said he was one of the two cases. His sister, Longmont resident Alma Rosa Perez-Aguirre, told the press on Tuesday that he recently transferred to Aurora from the Sterling Correctional Facility, which has dealt with over 200 cases of COVID-19.

ICE officials said the second man is a 35-year-old from El Salvador.

Nationwide, ICE says more than 2,300 people in custody have been tested for the novel coronavirus, and more than 1,100 of those received positive diagnoses. Some of the people reflected in these numbers have been deported or released.

Two ICE employees in Aurora tested positive in March, and three GEO employees later came down with the virus.

Rep. Jason Crow’s office released a statement calling the cases “disturbing.” It also said Crow wrote to ICE after 166 new detainees were transferred to the facility in late April, asking that no more people be allowed in to reduce the possibility that the virus could penetrate the facility.

Oscar first entered the United States in 1991.

He’s been deported three times, an ICE spokesperson said, first after he pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and possession of a schedule 1 drug with intent to sell.

Alma said her brother re-entered the country by way of El Paso last May “to be reunited with his children” and was detained immediately. He was transferred to multiple immigration detention centers before he served two years in prison for the illegal re-entry. He was told he’d be deported this month, so Alma flew to Mexico, expecting to see him.

“But he never arrived,” she said. Instead, he called and told her we was heading to Sterling because of a parole violation, and that he was scared.

Oscar is 58 years old and has chronic hypertension and an enlarged heart, according to his attorney, Henry Hollithron. Alma said his pre-existing conditions were cause for concern.

“How am I supposed to keep myself safe?” she remembered him asking. There were people everywhere inside Sterling. And, he told her: “My mask has ripped.”

Alma tried to offer support, telling him to wash his hands and use a T-shirt to cover his face. She was worried, too.

Then, Oscar was transferred to Aurora. Hollithron said he had a fever when he arrived, and that his condition blocked him from access to his client.

“We were told we weren’t able to speak with him because he was in quarantine and unable to talk,” he said.

Hollithron called GEO’s medical care “appallingly substandard” — a claim that was recently bolstered by an ACLU report but that ICE has denied.

In Freihat v. ICE, a federal judge found that ICE did not do enough to respond to the pandemic and “likely exhibited callous indifference to the safety and well-being” of people in its custody. The ruling warns that any positive cases in detention centers could unintentionally get out of hand: “Once a facility has a few cases, the disease spreads rapidly, despite IHSC and CDC protocols.”

Hollithron said Oscar’s friends and family don’t trust that he’ll make it out of GEO alive.

“Our concern is not to legalize his status,” Hollithron said. “What we are simply asking for is that he be given the care that anyone in detention is entitled to and that his case be processed expeditiously.”

Oscar has been in custody for over a year without a hearing, he added. If he were to be deported, “then that should have happened already.”

Alethea Smock, a spokeswoman for ICE, said Oscar was sentenced to 24 months in prison for re-entering the country without authorization: “To say he was bounced around without a hearing is entirely false.”

Jennifer Piper, an immigrants rights activist who has been working with Oscar’s family, said he was rushed to the hospital Tuesday night and neither his family nor Hollithron were notified until Thursday afternoon.

There is a “distinct possibility,” Hollithron said on Tuesday, that his client “could die while in the custody of this government.”

This story has been updated throughout.

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