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‘They Didn’t Listen to Us’: ICE Detainee Who Waged Hunger Strikes for COVID-19 Protections Gets Virus

 February 1, 2021 at 10:50 AM PST

Speaker 1: 00:00 COVID-19 has spread like wildfire inside a jail North of Sacramento that also holds immigrant detainees. Now about half of all, the people locked up there have tested positive for the virus and this story from the California report magazine, K Q E D immigration reporter for Rita John fellow Romero spoke with one of them. A 20 year old asylum seeker. Who's been fighting to improve conditions inside Speaker 2: 00:27 [inaudible] says life was unbearable for him in his home country of El Salvador. Speaker 2: 00:34 He calls me from inside the Yuba County jail to tell me how he wound up there. He says, growing up, he was abused and abandoned by his parents. As a teenager, gangster, beat him and threatened to kill him. If he stayed, he says that would have been like a death sentence, but he had a brother in the U S so he fled El Salvador and made the journey North through Guatemala and Mexico, basically on his own with no money. He was 16 when he crossed the Southern border and ended up at a government shelter for unaccompanied migrant kids that finally released them to his brother in New York. But he was involved in a robbery stealing a classmate's cell phone. And Wanko said serve time in a juvenile facility, Speaker 1: 01:24 A [inaudible]. Speaker 2: 01:32 He says he often regrets that mistake, but that he's learned from it and paid for it. After he finished his juvenile sentence, he was sent to a California facility for minors. When he turned 18, I sent him to the Yuba County jail Speaker 1: 01:52 [inaudible] [inaudible]. Speaker 2: 01:57 He says he wants an opportunity to show his changed When COVID first hit. When Jose was worried, he and others at the jail were vulnerable. He says it was impossible to socially distance and they lacked good medical care. So he put himself out there and became an advocate. He went on three hunger strikes to try to get officials with immigration and customs enforcement and the UBA jail to do more, to protect them. He also became part of a lawsuit to force ice, to release detainees, to allow for more social distancing inside. Speaker 3: 02:34 One of the things that most impresses me about him is that despite the fact that he has just never been able to catch a break in life, and yet he still has this really generous heart, where he wants to help other people. Speaker 2: 02:50 Kelly Wells, as Franco says, attorney she's with the San Francisco public defender's immigration unit. She says the lawsuit led to a federal judge in San Francisco ordering the release of more than 50 detainees from Yuba that didn't prevent a COVID outbreak from hitting the facility. Last month, the judge then ordered weekly testing for detainees and for ice to ensure that staff cleans and disinfects cells before people are moved there, but still more than 120 County inmates and nine ice detainees, including Hong Jose have tested positive Speaker 1: 03:29 [inaudible] Speaker 2: 03:30 One Jose says he had difficulty breathing and was coughing blood guards isolated him in a small concrete cell with no windows. When he first got there, he felt like crying. Speaker 1: 03:42 Yes [inaudible]. Speaker 2: 03:47 He says the toilet was disgusting. The walls were molded. The bed was covered in dust trash and other people's hair. Speaker 1: 03:58 [inaudible] Speaker 3: 03:59 And we've heard consistently from every single detainee who has been moved since the order that they have arrived to filthy cells. Um, that clearly hadn't even been cleaned. My class disinfected, Speaker 2: 04:11 Casa says he was kept in that cell alone 22 hours per day. For 12 days, I says, own policy says medical quarantine must be different from punitive segregation, but [inaudible] says, says he felt he was being punished. Speaker 1: 04:27 Yeah, it has it [inaudible]. Speaker 2: 04:29 He was so depressed. He says, he thought about killing himself. An ice spokesman says he can't comment because of pending litigation involving the UBA facility. Wanko says lawyer Kelly Wells says immigrants have given up and agreed to be deported after just one month at the UA jail. But Juan Jose has endured three years there as he pursues asylum because he's afraid of returning to, Speaker 3: 04:57 For me, what's really crushing about his case is I started representing him when he was just 18 years old and I've watched him grow up in Yuba County jail. Um, and now he's lost so many, um, experiences that you should have as a teenager because he's been stuck in this Bismal jail. Speaker 2: 05:22 But recently I got some good news, a state court granted him special immigrant juvenile status for young immigrants. Who've been abused by a parent and for whom it's not in their best interest to return to their home country, the status is not enough to get them out of detention, but it opens the door for him to apply for a green card. Speaker 1: 05:45 [inaudible] Speaker 2: 05:46 That chance gives him hope. He says, Punko said dreams that when he eventually leaves the detention center, he'll go to school work. And one day start a program that supports young undocumented migrants like him. And [inaudible].

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The coronavirus spread rapidly at Yuba County Jail, infecting about half of all currently locked up there. More than 120 county inmates and nine ICE detainees at the facility have tested positive for COVID-19 since last month.
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