Christian Mejia thought he had a shot at getting out of immigration detention in rural Louisiana after he'd found a lawyer to help him seek asylum.
Then he was quarantined.
In early January, a mumps outbreak at the privately-run Pine Prairie U.S. 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.
His attorney wasn't allowed in, but his immigration court case continued anyway — 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, raising concerns among migrant advocates about disease outbreaks and resulting quarantines that limit access to legal services.
As of March 6, more than 50,000 migrants were in detention, according to ICE data.
Internal emails reviewed by Reuters reveal the complications of managing outbreaks like the one at Pine Prairie, since immigrant detainees often are transferred around the country and infected people don't necessarily show symptoms of viral diseases even when they are contagious.
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, an ICE official who spoke on condition of anonymity told Reuters.
Ten Democratic members of Congress sent a letter on Feb. 28 to ICE acting director Ronald Vitiello seeking more information about viral diseases at immigration detention centers in Colorado, Arizona and Texas. Lawmakers did not mention the Pine Prairie outbreak.
Pablo Paez, a spokesman for The 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."