Detained migrants say they were forced to clean COVID-infected ICE facility

LOS ANGELES — Asylum-seeking migrants locked up inside an Arizona Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center with one of the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases say they were forced to clean the facility and are "begging" for protection from the virus, according to a letter obtained exclusively by NBC News.

"This is a life or death situation," said a translation of their message, dated May 18, and sent to the Florence Immigrants & Refugees Rights Project, a legal advocacy group that has filed a lawsuit on behalf of migrants in the facility.

The migrants appealed for help to the advocacy group from inside one of 24 "tanks," which hold 120 men each, in the La Palma Correctional Center outside of Phoenix, which is operated for ICE by the for-profit company CoreCivic.

Click here to read the letter.

ICE's official count says that as of June 7, 78 detainees have tested positive at La Palma, with 14 cases currently under monitoring and zero deaths.

The migrants say the facility forced detainees in inadequate personal protective equipment to clean and work in the facility's kitchen despite their fear it was a prime point for spreading the virus inside the center due to crowding at meal times. When some migrants protested, the letter says, they were punished with verbal threats and indefinite lock-ins. On one day when migrants resisted working in the kitchen, some were "sent to the hole," otherwise known as solitary confinement.

Two migrants described being asked to clean the trash from the nurses' office, where sick patients were treated. One said he was asked to clean the feces-covered cell of a mentally ill detainee without gloves.

Other allegations include guards not wearing adequate equipment to prevent infection as they passed from one cell to another and "no measures for social distancing" while immigrants lined up for food.

The detainees also described unsanitary conditions, like lockdowns that lasted for three days with no access to showers. The migrants say they were given two "disposable masks of very poor quality in the month of April" and received "2 cloth masks" in May. They also say they did not receive basic hygiene supplies, like toilet paper, on weekends.

The migrants say that after the kitchen closed due to COVID concerns in mid-May, they were served sandwich boxes that included two slices of "rotted" ham with bread.

Lawyers for 13 migrants, held in both La Palma and nearby Eloy Detention Center, which has 13 positive cases, described the facilities in a federal lawsuit filed Monday as "tinderboxes on the verge of explosion." The lawsuit says the migrants are being unlawfully detained because their asylum hearings have been delayed and asks ICE to release the migrants because of the risk of COVID-19 infection. ICE has released more than 1,300 detainees on similar grounds after its own reviews or court orders.

"Our clients have told us over and over again it's impossible to practice social distancing in detention," said Laura Belous, an advocacy attorney with the Florence Project, which filed the lawsuit along with the ACLU, the ACLU of Arizona and the law firm Perkins Coie. "It's impossible to maintain that six feet of distance when the telephone you're sitting on to talk to your lawyer is one to three feet from the other guy on the phone. When you're in communal showers. When 40 to 50 guys are touching the same door. That disease is going to spread like wildfire. And the fact is, it has."

"People shouldn't have to choose between their health and an immigration case," said Belous. "This is a situation that was completely avoidable."

In response to an inquiry from NBC News, an ICE spokeswoman said, "As a matter of policy, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not comment on pending litigation."

The spokeswoman added that ICE has been following CDC guidelines related to COVID-19 and "the health, welfare and safety" of detainees is "one of ICE's highest priorities."

NBC News earlier reported that ICE's practice of transferring detainees around the country without extensive testing had led to coronavirus outbreaks in five states.

Julia Ainsley reported from Washington.