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” in the La Palma Correctional Center outside of Phoenix, which is operated for ICE by the for-profit company CoreCivic. Most of the 'tanks' hold 120 individuals each, although six hold only 60. CoreCivic told NBC News that no unit currently holds more than 100 detainees.
In a statement to NBC News after this story was published, CoreCivic disputed the claim that detainees are forced to work in the facility.
"Claims of ‘forced’ work are false. Detainees are permitted to participate in voluntary work programs. Should they choose to participate in these programs, proper personal protective equipment (PPE) was and is provided for the task at hand," said a spokesman for the private prison company.
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.
CoreCivic said it has no current active cases of COVID-19 in the facility and that all positive cases are considered recovered.
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.
CoreCivic said that detainees who work in the kitchen are "equipped with hair and beard nets, gloves, and since the onset of COVID-19 pandemic, face masks." A spokesman for the company also denied that detainees were punished with verbal threats or indefinite lock-ins and said solitary confinement does not exist in its facilities.
"We do have various security levels and safety needs for restrictive housing, but this should not be confused with 'solitary confinement,'" the spokesman said.
CoreCivic has said it is required to follow ICE detention standards and ICE has said its standards permit the use of "administrative segregation" as a last resort.
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.
CoreCivic said its personnel are required to wear a face mask while working and the current low population at the facility means "anyone is capable of social distancing should he or she choose to do so." The company's spokesman added that social distancing is encouraged by staff, on posted flyers, town hall meetings and over the television system.
CoreCivic also said the room designated for attorney/client meetings has “ample space to maintain social distancing … but most [clients] are utilizing other means in which to communicate.”
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.
CoreCivic said the lockdowns detainees describe are being confused with measures put in place to stop the spread of infection. The company disputed the claims that detainees have gone three days without access to showers or do not receive toilet paper on weekends. The spokesman also said detainees can replace their face masks at any time upon request.
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.
CoreCivic said it has "received no complaints or notifications that there has been any issue with the freshness of the food being served." CoreCivic said detainees are provided three meals a day, two of which include a hot entrée.
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.
This story has been updated since publication with a statement from CoreCivic.