Christian Mejia thought he had a shot at getting out of immigration detention in rural Louisiana after he found a lawyer to help him seek asylum.
Then, he was quarantined.
In early January, a mumps outbreak at the privately run Pine Prairie Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Processing Center put Mejia and hundreds of other detainees on lockdown.
“When there is just one person who is sick, everybody pays,” Mejia, 19, said in a phone interview from the Pine Prairie center, describing weeks without visits and access to the library and dining hall.
While his attorney wasn’t allowed in, his immigration court case continued—over a video conference line. On Feb. 12, the judge ordered Mejia deported back to Honduras.
The number of people amassed in immigration detention under the Trump administration has reached record highs. As of March 6, more than 50,000 illegal aliens were in detention, according to ICE data.
Internal emails reviewed for this article reveal the complications of managing outbreaks such as the one at Pine Prairie, since illegal alien detainees often are transferred around the country and infected people don’t necessarily show symptoms of viral diseases even when they are contagious.
Mumps can easily spread through droplets of saliva in the air, especially in close quarters. While most people recover within a few weeks, complications include brain swelling, sterility, and hearing loss.
ICE health officials have been notified of 236 confirmed or probable cases of mumps among detainees in 51 facilities in the past 12 months, compared to no cases detected between January 2016 and February 2018. Last year, 423 detainees were determined to have influenza and 461 to have chicken pox. All three diseases are largely preventable by vaccine.
As of March 7, a total of 2,287 detainees were quarantined around the country, according to an ICE official.
Pablo Paez, a spokesman for GEO Group, the private prison operator that runs Pine Prairie under government contract, said its medical professionals follow standards set by ICE and health authorities. He said medical care provided to detainees allows the company “to detect, treat, and follow appropriate medical protocols to manage an infectious outbreak.”
The first cases at Pine Prairie were detected in January in four illegal aliens who had been recently transferred from the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi, according to internal emails.
Tallahatchie, run by private detention company CoreCivic Inc., has had five confirmed cases of mumps and 18 cases of chicken pox since January, according to company spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist. She said no one who was diagnosed was transferred out of the facility while the disease was active.
Tallahatchie houses hundreds of illegal aliens recently apprehended along the U.S.- Mexico border, ICE officials said.
On March 5, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told reporters that changing demographics on the southwest border, with more illegal aliens from Central America traveling long distances, has overwhelmed border officials and raised health concerns.
“We are seeing illegal aliens arrive with illnesses and medical conditions in unprecedented numbers,” McAleenan said at a press conference.
Since January, the 1,094-bed Pine Prairie facility has had 18 detainees with confirmed or probable cases of mumps, compared to no cases in 2018, according to ICE. As of mid-February, 288 people were under quarantine at Pine Prairie. Mejia said his quarantine ended on Feb. 25.
Detention centers in other states also have seen a rise in outbreaks.
There have been 186 mumps cases in immigration detention facilities in Texas since October, the largest outbreak in centers there in recent years, said Lara Anton, the press officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
In Colorado, at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility near Denver, run by GEO Group, 357 people have been quarantined following eight confirmed and five suspected cases of mumps detected since February, as well as six cases of chickenpox diagnosed since the beginning of January, said Dr. Bernadette Albanese from the Tri-County Health Department in Colorado.
Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco