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Migrants say Pinal ICE facility failed to keep them safe from COVID-19

ELOY — The La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy was not what Javier Ferrer was expecting when he came to the U.S. seeking to escape from the discrimination in his home country of Venezuela.

Ferrer was one of three migrants who, through the help of an interpreter, described experiences of discrimination, harassment, assault and a lack of medical care to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at La Palma in Eloy through a Zoom meeting in September with the help of the group Trans Queer Pueblo and other organizations, such as No More Deaths. Trans Queer Pueblo is hoping to force the U.S. government to shut down La Palma.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and CoreCivic, which operates La Palma, have denied all of the allegations that Ferrer and the other migrants have made. The two organizations stated in emails that the facility is safe and any complaints of harassment, discrimination or assault are taken seriously and handled promptly. They also state that cleaning protocols, masks and isolation procedures to control the spread of COVID-19 were implemented as soon as those procedures were recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April.

Through interpreter Stephanie Figgins from Trans Queer Pueblo, Ferrer said he left his home country of Venezuela because he is gay. He traveled to Mexico, where he stayed for a short time with a man who said he could get Ferrer a job. When the man tried to assault Ferrer, he knew he couldn’t go home to Venezuela, so he decided to try his luck getting into the United States with the help of a friend he knew here.

Ferrer said he was hoping to find protection from discrimination in the U.S. and find out what possibilities there were for someone like him. He waited for three months in Mexico at the border to enter the U.S. as an asylum seeker. He said he knew that there was the possibility that he would be sent to one of the many migrant detention centers in the U.S. while his case was processed and heard. When he presented himself at the border crossing he was detained for two days in a room that is known as the “ice box” among migrants because it is so cold, before being transferred to La Palma, Ferrer said.

La Palma was “terrible,” he said via Figgins. “I’ve never been detained or arrested before. It was a terrible experience. They completely treat you like a criminal.”

He said the administration did very little to communicate to migrants what was going on inside or outside of the facility. Migrants were frequently locked into their pods without the administration telling them why. They usually found out after the fact that the lockdown was caused by another migrant attempting suicide or a protest outside of the facility.

Ferrer said a lot of things changed when the pandemic rolled around but there was no way to effectively practice social distancing guidelines.

Migrants were told to sit every other seat in the cafeteria in order to maintain social distancing, Ferrer said. Migrants who worked in the kitchen protested and refused to work because most of the migrants who were coming down with COVID-19 had worked in the kitchen.

The administration eventually closed the kitchen and brought the food directly to the migrants in their pods.

Ferrer said that the guards had no “biosecurity” or health safeguards, such as masks, in place.

Newly arrived migrants were brought directly into the same pod as migrants who had been living at La Palma for months.

Trans Queer Pueblo also shared letters from two groups of migrants who have or are currently staying in La Palma.

The first, dated Aug. 20, from a group of 11 Cuban migrants, described suicide attempts by many migrants, including some who had signed the letter. It stated when COVID-19 first started to spread in La Palma in February that migrants and guards were not given masks, adequate cleaning supplies or other equipment to protect themselves. Migrants who tried to wear homemade masks were punished. According to the letter, it wasn’t until March that migrants and guards were given masks.

Ryan Gustin, the manager of public affairs for CoreCivic, pointed out that the CDC did not recommend the use of masks or face coverings until April.

When migrants complained or refused to work in the kitchen they were punished and sent to solitary confinement, where they were placed in cells next to migrants who were being isolated for having COVID-19. Migrants with COVID-19 were given water and over-the-counter pain pills.

The second letter, dated Aug. 25, is from a group of six migrants who identify as gay, bisexual or transgender. That letter describes similar conditions with a lack of space for social distancing, a lack of masks and cleaning equipment, as well as assaults and attacks due to their sexual orientation. They wrote they were sent to solitary confinement for complaining about the situation or reporting assaults.

Both ICE and CoreCivic deny the accusations made in the letters and Ferrer’s description of La Palma.

“The health, welfare and safety of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities. ICE continues to incorporate the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 guidance, which is built upon the already established infectious disease monitoring and management protocols currently in use by the agency,” Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe, an ICE public affairs officer, stated in an email.

“We care deeply for our hardworking, dedicated employees and the people in our care, and we’re committed to their health and safety. We work hard to ensure that they have the necessary tools to feel safe every day,” Gustin said. “Since even before any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our facilities, including La Palma Correctional Center, we have rigorously followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities as well as our government partners. 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.”

As COVID-19 testing kits became available, ICE said it took steps to make sure that migrants in all of the ICE detention facilities under the Phoenix Field Office, including La Palma, were tested in accordance with CDC guidelines, Pitts O’Keefe stated. The majority of migrants who tested positive were asymptomatic.

All new migrants who come to La Palma are tested for COVID-19 as part of the center’s regular intake process, she said.

As of Oct. 1, La Palma is currently monitoring 28 migrants who have tested positive for COVID-19 as part of that intake process, Pitts O’Keefe said. Those individuals have not been in contact with the general population inside La Palma and are under the care of a medical provider while they wait through a 14-day isolation.

Any migrants within the facility who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 or come in contact with another migrant who has tested positive for COVID-19 are taken to the medical unit to be isolated and assessed by medical professionals to determine if they need to be tested for the virus, Pitts O’Keefe said.

Gustin said that the company’s response to COVID-19 started in January and the company’s medical training and services meet all of ICE’s requirements. La Palma has a main medical unit and three satellite medical units on each compound to help detainees, he said. Medical personnel are available onsite 24 hours a day, seven days a week to provide care for detainees.

Besides quarantining any new migrants for 14 days, CoreCivic also separates out migrants who may have a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to pre-exising health conditions, Gustin said. Those migrants are housed in a separate unit and guards or employees entering that unit or the unit that houses migrants that are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms are required to wear protective gear such as masks, gowns, eye protection and gloves.

Migrants who show symptoms or test positive for COVID-19 are immediately moved to the medical unit and quarantined in individual cells, Gustin said. These migrants are able to leave to use the shower, but all mail, food and other items are brought directly to their cell.

When someone recovers from the virus and is moved out of the unit, their living area is thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before being used again, Gustin said.

ICE also has protocols to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as issuing masks, cleaning supplies and personal hygiene supplies. It also requires meal and recreation times to be staggered to encourage social distancing, Pitts O’Keefe said. Migrants who may be at a greater risk for severe illness from catching COVID-19 are considered for release depending on their health risks, possible criminal history and flight risk.

“Face masks were provided to all staff and individuals in our care at every facility since April, and we have an adequate supply of masks,” he stated in the email. “We also have had adequate supplies to support the intensified cleaning and disinfecting practices in place since the pandemic began.”

All employees are required to wear a mask, he said. Social distancing is also encouraged through regular town hall meetings, flyers, instructions from staff and closed circuit TV.

Gustin said that the “facility is well below full occupancy.” Some of the pods in the facility can hold up to 120 people, he said, but six of the pods can only hold 60 people and even the larger pods are currently holding less than 100 people.

Migrants are not required to sign a waiver to receive a mask, Gustin said. Initially, the company had migrants sign a paper stating that they understood that masks were only part of a series of actions, such as frequent hand washing and social distancing, that prevent the spread of COVID-19.

All migrants were originally issued two paper surgical masks in April, he said. At a later date, migrants were issued two cloth masks to use. Those masks may be laundered weekly and any migrant who asks for a replacement can receive one at any time, Gustin said.

He also said any claims that CoreCivic does not provide adequate cleaning supplies or that photos were staged with migrants holding cleaning supplies were “patently false.”

“In the normal course of operation, LPCC detainees are provided with facility-approved soap and EPA-registered sanitation supplies to clean their immediate living areas on a daily basis, free of charge,” Gustin stated in his email. “In response to COVID-19, detainees are provided access to extra cleaning supplies and disinfectant chemicals to clean their cells/immediate living areas. Each pod has a cleaning closet with mops, brooms, towels, and cleaning and EPA-registered disinfecting supplies.”

The company follows all CDC guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces to prevent COVID-19, he said.

Gustin said the company does not punish migrants for complaining or reporting assaults or for refusing to do work. All migrant work within the facility is entirely voluntary, he said.

All CoreCivic employees receive 160 hours of pre-service and on-going annual training on inmate and detainee rights, guidance on interacting with people who identify as LGBTQ and medical care and meets or exceeds the training standards of the American Correctional Association and ICE, Gustin said.

The company has a zero tolerance policy regarding abuse, sexual abuse or harassment, he said. It also has an appeals process and a hotline where anyone can report an incident without fear of reprisal. Most migrant complaints are handled by ICE, he said.

Ferrer was able, with the help of Trans Queer Pueblo and other groups to find someone within the U.S. to sponsor him and allow him to leave La Palma. He’s currently staying with friends in another state.

However, his journey is not quite finished. He has to wear an ankle monitor that makes him seem like a criminal to others, he said. He would like to work, he has a background in graphic design and business and social media marketing, and he’s considering going back to school to finish his degree or learn a different career. But because he moved to a different state, the process he started to obtain permission to work in the U.S. was halted and restarted.

“It makes things difficult,” he said. “I want to dedicate myself to a good job.”

He also wants to work to earn money to help support himself and pay for a lawyer to help him with his immigration status but he can’t until the courts that have closed due to the pandemic, reopen.

Ferrer said he isn’t sure yet if he’s found the protection he was seeking in the U.S., because he’s still fearful that he might be deported. His next court hearing isn’t until October 2021.

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COVID-19 makes an impact on local Halloween celebrations

CASA GRANDE — Every Halloween, Georgia Prado’s house in the Santa Rosa subdivision attracts nearly 300 trick-or-treaters.

For many of her Halloween guests, the lurking monsters, dangling ghosts and other spooky holiday decorations are almost as big an attraction as the treats she hands out.

“So many people like to stop and take pictures,” she said.

Over the years, her home has become known as “the Hugs house” as her favorite treat to hand out is the popular fruit-flavored beverages.

“We normally celebrate by decorating and passing out Hug fruit drinks and miscellaneous candy,” Prado said. “Two or three weeks before Halloween, our adult children and their children come over and we have a decorating party. We go all out and do the place up real good with scary-themed decor and animatronics.”

But this year will be different. With Halloween less than a month away, she has decided not to hand out treats this year and isn’t sure she’ll even decorate.

“While we would love nothing more than to pass out Hugs again this year, due to COVID we have decided that it would not be responsible to do so,” she said. “To encourage children and their families to go door to door and risk being huddled up near others who may unknowingly be carrying the virus, just seems irresponsible to us.”

While she’s disappointed she won’t be seeing kids in their Halloween costumes this year at her home, she said she would be devastated if she had somehow contributed to a spike in post-Halloween COVID-19 cases.

“To hear soon after Halloween that the number of COVID cases had risen would cause us so much guilt we could not bear it,” she said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a list of Halloween activities with a ranking of high, moderate or low COVID-19 risk.

Trick-or-treating tops the list of higher risk activities that the CDC urges people to avoid.

Also on the high-risk activity list are trunk-or-treat events, crowded indoor costume parties, indoor haunted houses, hayrides and tractor rides, using alcohol or drugs and traveling to a rural fall festival not in one’s home community.

Moderate-risk activities include:

  • One-way trick-or-treating in which individually wrapped treats are offered on a grab-and-go basis and social distancing is observed.
  • Having a small-group, outdoor, open-air costume parade.
  • Attending an outdoor costume party in which protective face masks are worn and social distancing is observed. The CDC cautions against substituting a costume mask for a two-layer facial covering.
  • Attending an open-air, one-way walk-through haunted forest if people can remain more than 6 feet apart. If people are screaming, greater distancing should be observed.
  • Visiting pumpkin patches where hand sanitizer is available.
  • Having or attending an outdoor Halloween movie night with local family friends if people are spaced out at least 6 feet. More distancing is recommended if people will be screaming.

Most virtual or home-based events, including decorating and pumpkin carving, are deemed low risk.

Some communities are offering COVID-safe online events to help area residents celebrate Halloween.

Casa Grande Parks and Recreation is offering a month of fall and Halloween activities throughout October including some that offer a chance to win prizes.

In a “Nailed It!” virtual event, kids create Halloween-theme desserts in their home and submit a photo for a chance to win a $100 gift card.

Throughout October, the city will host “Wicked Wednesdays” with free take-and-go Halloween-theme crafts available at the Main Library or the Community Recreation Center.

To take part in a virtual costume contest, participants may submit a photo of themselves in a Halloween costume.

In Eloy, the Parks and Recreation Department has been offering various online Halloween crafting opportunities for children.

The city of Maricopa has a “Walk-and-Treat” Halloween event set for 6 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 28 at Pacana Park. During the event, participants may wear a costume and walk along a path collecting treats from area businesses set up in the park.

Those handing out candy or treats will be required to wear masks and gloves.

Participants are also asked to wear facial coverings.

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CGESD students to return to school on Oct. 19, 26

CASA GRANDE — Casa Grande elementary school students will be returning to school this month, but when depends on the grade level.

The Casa Grande Elementary School District board held a special meeting on Tuesday to discuss a reopening plan for students to return to campus.

Over the summer the Governing Board decided that students would continue learning from home and not return to campus until at least after fall break.

“As it stands now, our trajectory has been headed in the right direction, and our district has been on the ‘green’ benchmark indicating ‘minimal community spread’ for the past two weeks,” a district report stated.

According to the board’s plan, families have two options for the school year. They can opt into online learning for the remainder of the school year or return to a hybrid model.

For students returning to campus in a hybrid model, a schedule was created for each grade level to follow for the safe return to school.

”A hybrid/flex model has been recommended from ADHS (Arizona Department of Health Services) epidemiologists for the immediate future, and may very likely extend throughout the school year,” the board said in a letter sent to families on Sept. 21.

Students attending center-based special education programming returned to in-person learning on Sept. 28.

Students in kindergarten and first grade will return to campus beginning Oct. 19 while students in grades 2-8 will return to campus on Oct. 26. K-5 students will attend school on campus for five days a week. Students in grades 6-8 will attend school on an A/B schedule with two days of in-person learning and three days of distance learning for the respective groups.

All students, staff and visitors will be required to wear a mask at all times while on campus.

The board voted to approve the reopening plan.

CGESD will continue to follow the ADHS recommendations. According to the board’s decision, CGESD will not return to in-person learning if the metrics indicate “substantial community spread.” The district will also return to virtual learning if the metrics indicate that spread.

The next regular meeting will take place on Oct. 13 at 6 p.m.

Casa Grande Union High School District students returned to campuses with a hybrid model on Tuesday.