Alejandro is an asylum-seeker from Venezuela who is fleeing political persecution. He spent the summer in Nogales while waiting to present at the port of entry, and has been detained in La Palma since September. In early April, Alejandro shared with KBI staff what it is like to be detained amidst the pandemic. Since the time of the interview, the virus has been confirmed among several detainees in the facility.
Alejandro is a 29-year-old man from Venezuela who is seeking asylum in the United States because of political persecution at home; he came to the U.S. to do so because his family—a brother and his parents—are U.S. residents living in Georgia who would be his sponsors. Instead, however, Alejandro has been in the La Palma Detention Center in Eloy since August, and he does not anticipate that there is any chance he will be leaving any time soon.
Alejandro arrived to Nogales in July of 2019 and waited several months for his number to be called. During that time, he came to the comedor for meals, medical assistance, and meetings with the Florence Project legal team. He also contracted chicken pox while waiting in Nogales and became seriously ill; it left him with a long-term respiratory disorder as a result of complications. Alejandro is very grateful for the support of the KBI and the ways it continues while he is in detention—through visits, letters, and calls.
When his number was called in September, he was taken to the La Palma Detention Center, where approximately 2,500 people are currently detained while awaiting the outcome of their immigration cases. Alejandro says that the facility is divided into various units of 350 people, and within these units, people are constantly surrounded by one another—in cells, the shared cafeteria, bathroom spaces, and in outdoor areas. As Alejandro says, “we watch the news. We know the best way to prevent the spread of this virus is to spread out from one another, and there is no way to do this in La Palma.” Additionally, Alejandro notes that there is no visible investment in preventing the spread of the virus through other measures—none of the guards wear masks or gloves, and it is very difficult to get soap in order to wash hands. When Alejandro asked a guard why none of the employees are wearing masks, he was told that it was to manage the levels of fear among the detainee population and to avoid a protest.
Alejandro reflected on the previous standards of medical care at La Palma. It can take weeks to get an appointment with the facility’s doctors or nurses, and he says that the remedies prescribed are nearly always “take ibuprofen and drink water,” no matter the ailment. He has seen several people who have been taken to the hospital because of the severity of their symptoms, but has also observed that not everyone who seems to need more advanced medical care is taken to hospitals. Whenever someone is taken to a hospital, they are taken in five-point restraints.
Alejandro thinks that because of mounting public pressure 10 high-risk individuals were released on parole in late March. Many of them, he said, were elderly, and several had been in isolation previously.
He is aware that the virus will arrive at some point: “it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. It’s an inevitability. I am worried because so many facility personnel enter the facility daily. If one of them is sick, or if one of their family members are sick, we will all be sick. And when that does happen, people will die. But I’m aware that we are not important to the government, and that they don’t care about our lives.” (Note: This conversation occurred two days before the virus was first confirmed in La Palma. Since that time, several cases have emerged, including in Alejandro’s unit. According to Alejandro’s family, he is currently in isolation.) The awareness, coupled with his underlying respiratory condition and the trauma of what he had lived through in Venezuela, has exacerbated his existing mental health condition. Alejandro is no longer able to sleep and his hair is falling out in clumps. Though he worries of the consequences of speaking out, he refuses to stay silent, and believes that the most important thing he can do at this time is to share what conditions are like inside and to convey a bit of the fear and desperation that detainees are living with. To that end, he organized a letter-writing campaign to the Venezuelan embassy in the United States, detailing the medical abuses that are occurring and signed by dozens of Venezuelan detainees in La Palma.
Because Alejandro entered through a port of entry, he is not eligible for bond. He wanted to enter the United States as lawfully as possible and so did not consider crossing through the desert. He understands that the likelihood of winning any form of relief is slim; in La Palma, he estimates that only about 3% of the people have won their cases. And because Alejandro presented at the port of entry after the transit ban was implemented, he is only eligible for lesser forms of protection under the Convention Against Torture and “withholding of removal.” In spite of the challenges ahead, Alejandro is determined to continue to fight as returning to Venezuela is, he says, a certain death sentence. “I came to the United States because I had been tortured, and my life was in serious danger. In the United States, I had hoped I could find safety, and my family is here to receive and support me.” His next court date is in late April, and he expects that it will be another 90 days after that for a final court date. If he is successful at that time—and he is very cautiously hopeful, given his extensive preparation, his lawyer’s opinion, among other factors—it would be another 90 days inside during which the government would be allowed to appeal. In the very best case scenario, Alejandro says, he might be out by the fall, over a year from when he first arrived.
That, though, assumes he and others survive the coronavirus outbreak, an outcome he knows is not guaranteed. He says, “We feel alone here, we feel forgotten, and we pass our days waiting for an absolute miracle. I feel deeply frustrated by this situation. The government does not care if a significant percentage of the migrant population dies at this time. We are all aware that we are disposable to the United States. “ And still, Alejandro refuses to give up. “I do still have hope, though I’m not sure why. I believe in God, and I know that God does not want these injustices to exist. And I know there are people outside, people at Kino Border Initiative, many others, who are fighting hard. You give me belief that something better is possible, and that’s part of how I can get through the days.”