That was the case for Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, a 57-year old undocumented immigrant who, after spending four decades in the United States as a free man, became the first person to die from COVID-19 in an immigrant detention center.
According to The Guardian, Escobar Mejia came to the country as a teenager, fleeing the violence in El Salvador that had claimed his brother’s life during the war, a brutal civi war that claimed the lives of almost 75,000 civilians and was financed by the US. .
The youngest of five children who fled the country holding his mother’s hand in the 1980s, Escobar Mejia lived with his sister Rosa in Los Angeles until his mother died. Although his siblings were able to obtain permanent residence in the country, for him, an addiction and a criminal record for drug possession and a DUI made it impossible.
Although the offenses were many years old, this was enough for immigration and customs agencies to detain him under threat of deportation when he was out driving with a friend.
Confined to the Otay Mesa detention center, Escobar Mejia died last Wednesday, “after complaining for weeks that he was sick and that his history of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems, and an amputated foot put him at high risk of succumbing to Covid-19,” according to The Guardian.
“He was weak, he should have been released,” his sister Rosa Escobar told The Guardian. “They were refusing to take him to see a doctor. He was begging and screaming for medical attention. He was so scared.”
Rosa added that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) did not warn her that her brother was sick. On the contrary, it was her friends inside who called her to tell her that “it was not until he was gasping for air that they took him to the hospital” on April 24.
By the time he received positive test results, Escobar Mejia was already dying.
Run by CoreCivic, a private prison corporation, Otay Mesa is another case of private facilities taking advantage of the anti-immigrant policies of the Trump Administration by keeping large numbers of people in questionable conditions.
With 630 detainees, the center has confirmed 144 positive COVID-19 cases, the highest rate in this type of facility. Of these, only 181 have been tested as of 6 May.
Another immigrant who was able to leave Otay Mesa told The Guardian that “the detainees were never given any masks and guards didn’t wear them. ICE continued to bring in new detainees during the pandemic and keeping a distance was impossible.”
“My friends still in there have coronavirus and are afraid of dying. They are seeking asylum, they are not criminals,” he said.
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