For Families Divided by ICE, the Pandemic Compounds the Nightmare

On March 25, Alexandra Seo’s mother sent her a message: “Alexandra. Call 911 for me. We don’t have any water.” Seo watched as more messages came in: Her mother told her there was no bathroom she could use. There was a foul chemical smell in the air that made it hard to breathe. And there was no running water for her to wash her hands to try to protect herself from the coronavirus. “It’s panic around here,” she messaged. “Everyone is going crazy. Tell dad please.” Seo felt nauseous as more texts arrived.

“Receiving those messages, I personally just freaked out,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Marlen Seo, Alexandra’s mother, was messaging her from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention in Jena, Louisiana. (The LaSalle ICE Processing Center, run by the for-profit prison company GEO Group, provides tablets for detained people to message and call their families — for a steep price). Reached a week later by video call, Marlen told Truthout she wanted to be home, so she could help take care of her family during the pandemic.

“I’m desperate,” she said. “I want to be home. My kids need me. My family needs me.”

For most people, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted concern for the well-being of loved ones, but families currently divided by ICE detention say their anxiety has reached constant, intolerable levels. Marlen is one of the over 32,000 people currently held in ICE detention, and, like her, the vast majority of people held in immigration jails have family somewhere else in the United States. On the inside, people like Marlen Seo feel helpless to support and protect not just their families, but themselves—in the LaSalle facility, at least seven people had confirmed cases of the virus as of April 30, according to ICE’s offical count. On the outside, people like Alexandra fear that their detained family members might catch the virus in the cramped and notoriously harsh conditions in ICE detention centers. They also struggle to support their loved ones over the phone.

“It breaks my heart hearing my mom tear up and start crying,” Alexandra says. “I don’t know what to say; I have never experienced the thing she’s going through. I don’t know how to help calm her down, or tell it’s all going to be OK — when it’s not going to be OK.”

While Alexandra is grown up, and has children of her own, many people have families with young children who rely on their support. Guerline Jozef, an advocate with the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a coalition that supports Haitian and Black immigrants across the United States, says she’s gotten desperate calls from family members with loved ones stuck in ICE detention. “One woman called me crying, saying she has kids, and her husband is their only provider during the pandemic,” she says.

René Escobedo González is one of the people divided from his children. In January, he was driving through Texas, traveling back home to his daughters in Florida. When he was almost at the Louisiana border, local police pulled over the car he was in, and turned him over to ICE. Since then, through the entire duration of the pandemic, Escobedo González has remained locked in Jefferson County Jail in east Texas. With travel restricted, his family — including his 15-year-old and 8-year-old daughters, both U.S. citizens — have been unable to visit him. Now, he says, he’s terrified of catching the virus before he can go home to be with them.

“His family is here; his kids are here. We’re all worried for him,” Escobedo González’s nephew Giovanni says on a phone call from Florida.

In the four months he’s been detained, Escobedo González says he’s seen a shocking deteriation of conditions in the jail, as the pandemic creates staff shortages and interrupts supply chains. He’s had to call family to ask them to put money in his commissary account so he can access goods as basic as soap and ramen noodles. As these calls come in, Giovanni says he and the rest of René’s family have becoming increasingly desperate, as they worry about his safety from the virus.

When Jose Miranda-Gonzalez was first booked into ICE detention in Georgia in December 2019, he messaged his sister to assure her that conditions weren’t too bad. “They treat us good,” he wrote. But in March, as the pandemic worsened, he sent another message: Conditions had quickly collapsed.

“We aren’t getting disinfectant sprays. There are low and poor amounts of soap, [sometimes] hardly any. The COs [corrections officers] don’t even come to work anymore. I take back that they treat us good,” he messaged on March 27.

Reached by phone, Miranda-Gonzalez says that he and other detained people have had to hunger strike to try to pressure staff at the Folkston ICE Processing Center to provide them with goods as basic as soap. “It’s the only way we can get their attention,” he says.

In detention centers across the country, people have staged hunger strikes and other actions to protest ICE’s handling of the pandemic. ICE and private detention center staff have responded with increasing repression. Many of the stories some detainees have shared with family members in the last month have been traumatic.

Marlen’s first messages to Alexandra on March 24 preceded a major crackdown by detention center guards. Her conversation with her daughter, as they both become increasingly alarmed, gives a shocking contemporaneous account of the whole event.

As Marlen continued to message Alexandra that day, she told her daughter that the 70 other women in her dorm were panicking. According to Marlen, they had been locked in the dorm without access to working restrooms or running water, and cleaning chemicals in the shower area had produced a smell that made it hard to breathe. When Alexandra made a video call to her mother’s tablet, Marlen answered with her grey uniform sweatshirt pulled up over her mouth to protect her from the smell. All around, other women were doing the same, coughing and retching. Over the sounds of crying and shouting in the background, Marlen told her daughter what she was experiencing, and then passed the tablet around for other women to talk.

“We’re in a state of alarm over the coronavirus,” one woman says in the video in Spanish, explaining her fear that the sickness was in the building. Another woman says they’d gone almost two days without dependable water. “They’re treating us like animals,” yet another woman says, as someone else sobs in the background.

“It was horrific to watch,” Alexandra says. “Out here I’ve been hearing people say, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad; [people in detention are] taken care of.’ They say that we’re exaggerating when stories do come out about it, But when I saw all the women in the video call freaking out, it just brought me to tears seeing everyone to have to suffer like that.”

After the short call, Marlen continued to message her daughter. “It’s all an uproar here,” she said. The state of terror increased as the two women messaged each other, when suddenly GEO Group guards re-entered the room along with ICE medical personnel.

According to a statement ICE later gave BuzzFeed, the group had entered to give a “presentation” about the virus. As the detained people protested their conditions, a small handful of the women — struggling to breathe in the stench of the dorm — tried to rush to the door. The guards cracked down, shooting something into the room.

“Alex. They just pepper sprayed us in here, and everyone is practically dying from the coughing. We can’t breathe. Help!!!” Marlen messaged her daughter. By the end of the repressive crackdown, guards had pepper sprayed over 70 people, including Marlen. Alexandra could only read her mother’s messages, helpless.

“She said she was literally dying from coughing so bad,” Alexandra says. “I feel like it hurts even more [than hearing about the lack of water] when you hear about them….” (Here, she pauses to try to find the right words.) “I guess getting abused? Not only does my mom not deserve it, some of other people in there are very young. It’s brutal to have to go through that. It’s traumatizing.”

A week after the incident, Marlen described her experience on a video call with Truthout.

“They pepper sprayed us all, because the girls were upset when they didn’t answer our questions about the virus. We were all gasping for air. We couldn’t breathe,” Marlen says. The violence of that day, coupled with the anxiety of detention during a pandemic, has left her shaken. In the time since the crackdown, Marlen says she has been dealing with severe depression. A pill she had been given by detention center medical staff only made it worse: She said it knocked her out for almost a day.

“I just want to be back with my family,” Marlen says. She had entered ICE detention intent on resisting her deportation, so she could rejoin her children. Marlen had lived in the country since she was two years old; she had a green card before a tax evasion charge put her legal permanent residency at risk. But after spending more than three months in detention — and growing more and more scared of the coronavirus — she has started to consider giving up. “ICE keeps people here so long they want to be deported. I have thought about it,” she says

Like Marlen, Miranda-Gonzalez has also spent decades in the U.S. — he’s lived in Atlanta since he was 2 years old. Today, he says part of what’s hard about detention isn’t just what he’s experiencing on the inside, but also what he’s missing on the outside, as his family weathers the pandemic. He’s missed major life events: In February, Miranda-Gonzalez’s son was born in the suburbs of Atlanta. Miranda-Gonzalez has never met him, but he says he calls his family on video every day so he can see his baby. (It’s not cheap — each call costs more than $6 for about 15 minutes.)

Miranda says he feels far away from his people. Folkston is over 300 miles from his home back in Atlanta, where he’s lived since he was a toddler. During the pandemic, ICE has suspended family visitation to detention centers, so no one has been able to come to see him. Still, Miranda says his communication with his family by phone has been crucial during the COVID-19 crisis, as they keep him updated with the latest news. (He says that detention centers have attempted to downplay the dangers — he claims that one of the medical officers has repeatedly told the men “Everything on the news is lies.”)

“Thank god for our family members, they let us know what’s going on in our communities,” he says.

Alexandra says that she knows her mother is fighting severe depression, so Alexandra tries to video call her every day so she can see Alexandra’s young children, Marlen’s grandchildren.

“Her getaway is seeing my girls. I try to video call her daily so she can get her mind away from what’s going on in detention,” Alexandra says. “She absolutely loves her grandbabies. I’m glad she has us; she says there are other people in there who don’t have families they can call, and it’s really hard for them.”

But even though many can do video calls, families say they feel desperately far apart. Alexandra is in Denver, and her mother is detained in Lousianna. Miranda is hundreds of miles away from his family in a rural detention facility. The remoteness of the Folkston facility has also prevented him so far from finding a lawyer. His family has tried to find an attorney who might help him, but it’s hard to do over distance, and in a time of pandemic.

Across the country, dozens of political organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union — as well as leaders like Congresswoman Alexandrea Ocasio-Cortez — have called on ICE to release all detainees in light of the COVID-19 danger. While lawyers have won the release of dozens of people, and ICE has made some of its own parole decisions, the agency has thus far vehemently opposed releasing more than a small portion of the over 30,000 people detained.

In detention, Miranda says he sometimes feels like giving up, but he’s holding out in hopes he can someday meet his son.

“I want to be with him,” he says.