In early June, asylum seeker Jose Munoz decided it was time to flee for his life – by getting deported from a Texas immigration detention center where coronavirus was sweeping through the population and going home to El Salvador.
As the number of COVID-19 cases rose in the Houston Contract Detention Facility – it has had at least 105, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data – Munoz said he had few ways to protect himself from exposure except for a cloth face mask. On June 1, there were 375 detainees housed in the facility, according ICE data.
Although at 19 he would not normally be at risk from complications from the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, Munoz worried his high cholesterol, a comorbidity found in some patients who died, made him vulnerable.
Months earlier, the Salvadoran student had sought asylum in the United States after he says he was attacked for refusing to transport drugs for a gang, which he declined to name, citing concerns for his safety. His lawyer and an affidavit signed by Munoz and reviewed by Reuters were consistent with his account. But by June, he feared his life was hanging in the balance, knowing that the next ruling in his asylum case would be months away if he chose to keep fighting.
“I felt like it was more dangerous than back in my country,” he said in a telephone interview last month from El Salvador.
Reuters spoke to more than 30 lawyers, immigration advocates, detainees and their family members who said the risks of contracting COVID-19 inside detention facilities have driven people to seek deportation.
Fifteen immigration lawyers and advocates, who together say they have received hundreds of requests from detainees seeking to leave facilities in eight U.S. states for health reasons, told Reuters they are seeing increases in the number of people considering abandoning their cases. Reuters found 12 cases of detainees who stopped fighting their cases and instead agreed to deportation or voluntary departure due to the pandemic.
An ICE spokeswoman told Reuters the agency respects migrants’ rights to make decisions regarding whether to pursue or forego their cases.
Reuters couldn’t determine if the total number of people voluntarily seeking deportation is on the rise.
Samuel Cole, a U.S. immigration judge who spoke to Reuters as communications director for the National Association of Immigration Judges, said he saw an increase in migrants seeking to leave detention in the early months of the pandemic – even if it meant abandoning their cases.
“There were definitely respondents who expressed fear of getting sick in detention and wanted to get out as fear of COVID was sweeping the country,” Cole said.
Patricia Jimenez, a Mexican asylum seeker who said she fled to the United States after being kidnapped by unknown gunmen, decided to drop her case and seek deportation as the coronavirus swept through the Eloy Federal Contract Facility in Arizona, which has reported 222 COVID-19 cases, the second-largest outbreak in an ICE detention center. Her account was confirmed by her lawyer and her aunt.
“I’m really scared that I might get sick and never see my son again,” she told Reuters in a call in late June from the center, where she’s awaiting deportation.
Jimenez said she fears returning to Mexico.