Outrage In New Jersey Following The First Known Covid19-related Death Of An Immigrant Detainee

Outrage In New Jersey Following The First Known Covid19-related Death Of An Immigrant Detainee


Detainees, formerly incarcerated New Jerseyans, and advocates are raising the alarm about poor conditions within county facilities and detention center, with four correctional staff in NJ who have died due to Covid19


New Jersey– (Monday, May 11th, 2020) Following the death of Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, a 57-year-old man, in ICE custody at Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, CA, people detained in New Jersey and immigrants’ rights advocates are intensifying calls to ICE, CoreCivic, and New Jersey state and county officials to release all detained in jail and ICE facilities immediately. Mr. Escobar Mejia’s early and preventable death from COVID-19 illustrates ICE’s wholesale failure to protect the lives of the men and women whom it is detaining during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. This includes the staff and officers working in these facilities with four Hudson County correctional staff who have died due to the virus and many more who have tested positive.


Mr. Escobar Mejia was a brother, uncle, and community member whose family is devastated by his tragic loss after he contracted the virus in the ICE detention facility. While Mejia’s death is the first known case of a COVID19-related death of an immigrant detainee, it will not be the last.


In New Jersey, ICE currently holds people in four detention centers, three under county jail contracts at Bergen, Essex, and Hudson County Jails, and the fourth a private ICE contract facility run by CoreCivic in Elizabeth. CoreCivic also runs the Otay Mesa detention center, where Mejia was held and contracted the virus.


The sparse data provided by ICE and county officials shows that testing is vastly inadequate. Out of the over 900 people detained by ICE in New Jersey, only a small portion appear to have been tested with a reliable test.


As of May 7th, 2020,

  • Bergen County Jail has reported three positive cases.
  • Essex County Jail has reported three positive cases. (More detainees have tested positive, however with an unreliable antibody test)
  • Hudson County Jail has reported 11 positive cases.
  • Elizabeth Contract facility reported 18  positive cases.


The ratio of correctional facilities and detention center staff that have tested positive is far greater, with four Hudson County Correctional facility staff who died due to Covid19 related symptoms. The high number of staff who have contracted the virus is indicative of the increased spread and danger of the COVID-19 outbreak in New Jersey facilities.


  • Hudson County Jail has 94 law enforcement officers who have tested positive with 2 nurses, 1 law enforcement officer, and 1 commissary clerk who have lost their lives due to the virus.
  • Bergen County Jail had 21 correctional officers, 6 sheriff’s officers, and 3 nurses who had tested positive.
  • Essex County Jail, 84 correctional officers, 4 civilian staff have tested positive with 2 inmates who have died with possible COVID19 complications.
  • Lastly, in the Elizabeth Detention Contract Facility, there has been no information provided on the status of staff.


ICE is not conducting adequate testing or contact tracing exposing its failure to act to protect human life and public health. Advocates are calling for the immediate release of all detainees due to the lack of proper safeguards to prevent the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus.


Nicole Polley Miller, Esq, Legal Services Director of American Friends Service Committee, Immigrant Rights Program said, 


“Detention centers have a long history of human rights abuses and inhumane conditions, even before COVID-19 began spreading like wildfire. Many of our detained clients and their families have told us how scared they are right now and how much they want to be reunited. As this public health crisis continues to grow, we demand that ICE release all immigrant detainees. We also call on state and county officials to do the right thing to protect the health, human rights, and dignity of incarcerated people, their loved ones, and communities.”


A recently released detainee who was held in Essex County Correctional Facility and wishes to remain anonymous said,


“We were 45 people all breathing the same air, eating next to each other- packed together. So many people don’t have a lawyer to advocate for them. They really need help—they’re screaming for help. There are still elderly people who are detained. Getting information is so difficult. We don’t know when we will have court. We were not given any masks or hand sanitizer. Everyone needs to be released because once one person has [COVID-19], everyone else will get it.”


A former detainee at Essex County Correctional Facility and Faith in New Jersey member who wished to remain anonymous said,

As a previous ICE detainee, I got to see firsthand what medical care looked like right before COVID-19 entered Essex County Correctional Facility. They give you a tablet they claim to be user friendly but I didn’t see non-English speakers getting the help they need through this tablet. You would need to request help several times a week but still wouldn’t get care even if it was for what could be a broken foot. If they failed to respond before COVID-19, what are they doing now?”

Farrin Anello, Senior Staff Attorney with ACLU-NJ said,

“Numerous federal judges have now issued emergency orders directing ICE to release people in its custody during the COVID-19 pandemic, finding that ICE is failing to protect these individuals from this incurable and life-threatening disease. The ACLU and its partners, including NJAIJ member American Friends Service Committee, are fighting in the courts to save the lives of medically vulnerable people detained by ICE at Otay Mesa, at jails here in New Jersey, and around the country, because ICE has shown again and again it is unable to detain people without putting their lives at risk from COVID-19. To prevent more senseless deaths, the only responsible action for ICE to take is to act swiftly to release all people in its custody.”


Katy Sastre, Outreach Coordinator with the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice said,

“This loss of life is tragic and saddest of all, it was completely preventable. Detainees are getting sick in New Jersey facilities, being inhumanely put in solitary confinement for up to 23.5 hours a day, and provided with little and substandard medical care. Detainees have held hunger strikes to demand their release due to these poor conditions and the danger of a Covid19 outbreak. The only way for them to humanely quarantine is to release them to the safety and support of their own communities.


“Conditions in New Jersey’s facilities are all too similar to those of the ICE detention center in Otay Mesa. We call on ICE officials, Core Civic, and county officials to immediately reduce the population in these facilities by releasing all detained and incarcerated people. Doing so not only recognizes our shared humanity but also follows public health guidelines for limiting the spread by addressing the needs of the entire community.”


A detainee in Essex County Correctional facility who wishes to remain anonymous shared the following statement: 

“Acá la situación no es buena, yo trabajaba en la cocina y trabajando ahí me contagie del virus. Me sentía súper mal; estaba en aislamiento. en la primera semana toda la comida que me daban era muy fría, toda la vomitaba (la comida que me daban estaba congelada). Durante 4 días no pude salir a bañarme, no me dejaban salir. Mi temperatura subía a 104 grados y no bajaba. Ahora estoy un poco mejor, no al 100% porque hay veces me agito rápido. Ahora ya estoy de vuelta a la población general y tengo miedo de contagiarme de nuevo; aquí no existe el distanciamiento social.”


English Translation: 

“Here the situation is not good, I worked in the kitchen and working there I got the virus. I felt super bad; I was in isolation. In the first week all the food they gave me was very cold, I vomited it all (the food they gave me was frozen). For 4 days I couldn’t go out to bathe, they wouldn’t let me out. My temperature rose to 104 degrees and did not drop. Now I am a little better, not 100% because sometimes I shake quickly. Now I am back to the general population and I am afraid of catching it again; here there is no social distancing. ”


Kevin Escobar, Community Organizer with Wind of the Spirit, Immigrant Resource Center said,

“The death of the first detainees due to Covid19 as no surprise, as CoreCivic and ICE continue to fail to protect the lives of detainees. What is shocking, is the degree to which ICE does not value human beings in their detention centers, as reports of mace used to repress those who raise concerns reach immigration rights organizations. Wind of the Spirit, as a collective of immigrants, calls on the immediate release of all immigrant detainees. Governor Murphy and County officials must take immediate action to prevent similar losses of human life in New Jersey that would otherwise be preventable by release.”

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