ICE Facility Turns Ambulance Away After Detainees With Coronavirus Warn 'I Can't Breathe'

Immigration attorneys are questioning why an ambulance they called to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Bakersfield, California, was turned away after two detainees with confirmed cases of coronavirus became so ill that they struggled to breathe.

Speaking with Newsweek on Monday, immigration attorneys Ambar Tovar and Lisa Knox said they felt compelled to call an ambulance to the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility on Sunday afternoon after the two detainees' conditions began to deteriorate to the point that the attorneys believed their lives could be in danger.

Both attorneys were particularly worried about Tovar's client, Christian Orellana, a 22-year-old man diagnosed with a liver disease that makes him more vulnerable to suffering serious health consequences as a result of COVID-19.

"His breath was getting shorter and shorter and when we asked him the question, 'are you okay?' his immediate response was just, 'I can't breathe' and 'I'm afraid for my life'," Tovar said.

Yet, the immigration attorney said his health concerns did not appear to be taken seriously by workers at the ICE facility, which is operated by private detention company The GEO Group.

Knox said workers also failed to provide adequate care to the other detainee, who has asthma and who she said was too ill to get out of his bed.

"We were worried they were going to die," Knox said. "And we made the decision to call an ambulance after the facility refused to provide care."

However, when the ambulance arrived, Knox said she was shocked to hear that workers at the ICE facility had turned the first responders away.

"I was surprised," she said. "We assumed that if we called 911 and relayed the symptoms that people are experiencing and if they thought it was worth sending an ambulance out there, that the facility was going to at least let them in."

Tovar rushed to the facility to see if she could help the ambulance gain access to treat her client, but by the time she arrived, she said the ambulance was gone.

A supervisor at the facility came out, however, and told her that her client was fine and was receiving adequate care.

That message was reiterated to Newsweek by a GEO Group spokesperson, who said that the two detainees in question had "received consistent medical attention, including having their temperature and vital signs checked multiple times."

The two individuals, they said, "have exhibited no signs of distress."

"We find it appalling that legal professionals would exhibit such inappropriate use of emergency service personnel," the spokesperson said.

"We take the health and safety of those in our care with the utmost seriousness and will continue to work with the federal government and local health officials to ensure their health and safety," they added.

That is the same messaging that attorneys have been receiving since the pandemic began, Tovar said.

Yet, she noted, immigration detainees continue to warn that ICE facilities are not taking proper steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus and are failing to provide adequate treatment for those who do contract the disease.

In a statement provided to Newsweek through immigration attorneys, detainees at the Mesa Verde facility have said that despite presenting symptoms of coronavirus, they are routinely being given Tylenol and told to return back to their dorms.

Those with symptoms of coronavirus, but who have not received positive tests are held in one dorm, while those who have tested positive, of which there are currently at least nine, have been quarantined together in a separate dorm.

"COVID-19 has arrived at Mesa Verde and is spreading like wildfire," the detainees say in a joint statement.

"In the past two weeks, at least 9 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and two of our brothers have been hospitalized," they said. Meanwhile, they said: "Dozens of people in our dorms are showing symptoms of COVID-19, and are desperate for care."

"It takes days to see a doctor, and even then, they often just give us Tylenol and send us back to our dorms," they said.

"We had to fight hard to get tested for COVID-19, and most of us still do not know our status," they said.

Since the coronavirus outbreak began in the U.S., the detainees and Knox both said, those held at the Mesa Verde facility, as well as attorneys and advocates, had been warning that the virus would spread quickly if it reached Mesa Verde.

"Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, those of us detained inside the Mesa Verde ICE detention facility have been sounding the alarm about the spread of the virus and the mortal danger we all faced," the detainees said.

"Despite being locked up and given very few resources, we have banded together and organized. We've written letters to ICE, GEO Group, and state officials; staged sit-ins in the yard, gone on hunger strike four times, and most recently, held a week long work stoppage-all to highlight the disaster we all saw coming."

"That disaster is now our reality," they said.

Immigration advocates and attorneys like Knox have been calling on ICE for months now to release immigration detainees, while similar calls have also rung out for prison and jail inmates to be released.

While both ICE and prisons and jails across the country have been releasing some detainees, Knox said not enough people have been freed to protect detainees and inmates from coronavirus.

As of August 3, ICE had released 511 detainees as a result of judicial orders.

The agency has pushed back against those orders, however, with ICE stating on its website: "These are non-discretionary releases on the part of ICE, and as a result, they do not necessarily undergo the same public safety, flight risk, and/or medical analysis. ICE, working with DHS and DOJ, is actively litigating many of these court decisions."

Despite the several hundred releases, ICE's population size was still 21,546 detainees by the start of this month.

There are at least 911 detainees with confirmed cases of coronavirus who are currently under isolation or being monitored, according to ICE data. At least 4,250 detainees in total have contracted coronavirus, with at least four cases resulting in death.

In a statement shared with Newsweek an ICE spokesperson said the agency could not comment on the incident due to pending litigation.

"Official information about COVID-19 positive ICE detainees and ICE's response to the Coronavirus is posted at," they said.

Updated (8/11/2020): This article has been updated with statements from ICE and GEO Group.

An immigrant stands in a holding cell at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility for illegal immigrants on July 30, 2010 in Florence, Arizona. John Moore/Getty