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In Georgia, 2nd ICE detainee dies from COVID-19 complications

The Costa Rican detainee was a diabetic. “There is no reason that a 70-year-old should have been held at a deadly facility in the midst of a pandemic,” a legal advocate said.
Image: The Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga.
The Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga.David Goldman / AP file

LUMPKIN, Ga. — A diabetic Costa Rican man in federal immigration custody has become the second detainee in Georgia to die from COVID-19 complications after being held at a detention center that has reported more than 150 coronavirus cases.

Jose Guillén-Vega, 70, died Monday night at a Columbus hospital, according to a news release from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The preliminary cause of death was “cardiopulmonary arrest, secondary to complications of the coronavirus disease,” officials said Wednesday. He had been hospitalized since Aug. 1.

County Coroner Sybil Ammons said Guillen-Vega also suffered from diabetes and hypertension, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Guillén-Vega was awaiting deportation and housed at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin. The facility has seen six deaths in the last three years, including one other death connected to COVID-19, according to immigrant rights advocates. Stewart detainee and Guatemala native Santiago Baten-Oxlaj, 34, died from the virus in May. The detention center had 154 confirmed coronavirus cases among detainees as of Tuesday.

Stewart’s two coronavirus deaths are the most of any ICE facility in the nation. Three other people have died in federal immigration detention centers after testing positive for COVID-19, according to ICE.

ICE critics have been demanding the agency free at-risk detainees since the pandemic began. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said those at higher risk of serious illness from the virus include people aged 65 years and older as well as those with serious heart conditions, obesity, diabetes, liver disease, chronic kidney disease, chronic lung disease, and conditions that leave them with weakened immune systems.

Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South, a social justice organization, told the AJC that Guillen-Vega’s death was preventable.

“There is no reason that a 70-year-old should have been held at a deadly facility in the midst of a pandemic,” Shahshahani said. “How many more tragedies (have to happen) at Stewart before people are released and the government shuts down this horrendous facility?”

ICE said that, nationwide, it has released more than 900 detainees who might be at higher risk for severe illness.

In a statement, ICE said it is “firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody.” The agency also said officials would review Guillén-Vega’s death as they do “in all such cases.”

Guillén-Vega came to the U.S. in December 1999 on a visa that expired in June 2000, ICE said. He remained in the country and was later convicted of statutory rape and indecent liberties with a child in North Carolina on March 15, 2001, authorities said. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and later transferred to Stewart on July 15.

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