Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

For Immigrants Facing Deportation During COVID-19, Detention Poses Another Risk

Photo of a woman wearing a mask walking through a gated fence to meet waiting family members.
Andrew Becker

Pedro Viera had one thing on his mind: getting to Las Vegas. And he needed the judge to know it.

It was April 7, sentencing day for Viera in the Third District Court in Salt Lake City. As the country was in lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic, the 51-year-old Orem man had been locked up at the Salt Lake County Metro Jail for 167 days. 

He had pleaded guilty in February to a misdemeanor of sexual battery. The charge stemmed from him inappropriately touching a co-worker at the rehab center where he worked as a certified nursing assistant in late 2018. 

And now, like the others before Judge Linda Jones that day, he was appearing remotely because of social distancing. The father of two was hoping he wouldn’t have to spend more time behind bars. He’d lost his job, his home and his money. His only place to turn was Las Vegas, where an uncle lived, he explained.

“I don’t know if you’ll actually be released in this case,” the judge said.

Because of the criminal charge, Viera had come to the attention of immigration officials. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, had placed a 48-hour hold on Viera, asking the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office to detain him after serving his sentence. 

For 20 years he’d lived in the country illegally, having overstayed a 2001 tourist visa from El Salvador. He’s also diabetic, which elevates his risk for COVID-19.

Five days before his sentencing, the sheriff’s office had confirmed its first case in one of its jail facilities. ICE’s guidelines for responding to the virus requires its officers to notify top officials of the detained immigrants who have underlying medical conditions. But that didn’t mean he’d be released.

Anamaria Viera, 17, reads the letter she wrote to Third District Judge Linda Jones before her father’s sentencing earlier this month.

In the end, the judge ordered him to probation with time served.

“Good luck,” she said to Viera.

“Thank you, your honor,” he said.

Locked Up

ICE officers came for him two days later. They put him in a van headed to the Aurora Contract Detention Center near Denver. To date, no detainees held there have tested positive for COVID-19, but two ICE employees have. 

In a phone interview from the detention center two weeks after his arrival, Viera said there was no social distancing for the 20 to 30 detainees housed in his unit and scant protections are available. Only guards had masks and gloves. 

“By me being in that group — of high-risk people — I was hoping they would let me free,” he said. “I don’t want to die here. I don’t want to get the corona. I don’t want to spread it to anyone.”

Adam Crayk, Viera’s attorney, said locking up his client wasn’t necessary.

“I have a problem with sending a 51-year-old man into a facility where COVID-19 is present, who’s diabetic,” he said. “We have the ability to put an ankle monitor on him and track him, or to make him respond to a new phone app.” 

Without any other criminal history ICE doesn’t have to detain Viera, and the conviction isn’t automatically a deportable offense, Crayk said. The agency has released about 700 immigrants because of COVID-19. In response to a lawsuit a federal judge last week ordered ICE to review and track every person considered to have an elevated risk for the virus.

The Salt Lake field office, which covers Utah, Nevada and Idaho, has more than 3,000 immigrants who are tracked through Alternatives to Detention, according to ICE. That includes ankle monitors, phone check-ins and even a smartphone app. Roughly 90,000 immigrants nationwide are monitored through Alternatives to Detention. That’s out of 3.3 million people who are in immigration proceedings. 

ICE spokeswoman Alethea Smock declined to comment on the agency’s response to COVID-19, but said by law, certain immigrants must be detained.

“ICE is doing everything it can to be able to make sure that individual cases are reviewed and people are under the appropriate level of detention,” she said. 

Thomas Homan, who led ICE for the first 18 months of the Trump administration, said the agency has to balance public health with public safety. The Alternatives to Detention program is nearly maxed out. ICE could expand this contract, he said, but releasing more detainees is a bad idea. 

“I don’t agree at all that we just release all detainees,” he said. “That would be a public safety threat in many places.”

Immigration Courts Closed — Except For Detainees

The Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts, has postponed hearings for Salt Lake and the other roughly 60 courts nationwide until May 15, but not for detained immigrants like Viera. 

The immigration court system has a backlog of more than 1 million cases, but current and former employees of immigration courts say continuing to hold hearings creates a public health hazard. The two unions that represent immigration judges and trial attorneys have also called for hearings to be halted. 

“To me it’s shocking the courts are still conducting cases,” said Alec Revelle, who was an immigration court administrator in San Francisco, Denver and Salt Lake City until he retired in 2018. “They’re putting aside people’s health and safety just to complete cases, and it’s not right.”

A Justice Department spokeswoman said in a statement that most courts remain open because of “unique constitutional concerns,” public safety, personal liberty and due process. But bond hearings, where a judge determines if an immigrant is eligible for release as their case continues, are still happening. 

Leading up to an immigration bond hearing that was days away, Viera said from the detention center that he hoped that a judge would soon rule in his favor. Until then, he worried about his two children — both citizens and minors — and his health. The night before he’d had a fever. 

“I’m afraid that I could get it and die from it, and never see my family again,” he said. “Who’s going to take care of my kids?”

Last week, an immigration judge granted Viera a $7,500 bond for his release, which he posted, his attorney said. He made it to Las Vegas, where he is for now. ICE reserved its right to appeal. 

Andrew Becker is Director of Special Projects for KUER News. Follow him on Twitter @ABeckerKUER

Andrew Becker joined KUER in 2018 as the host and producer of an upcoming investigative podcast before becoming news director. He spent more than a decade covering border, homeland and national security issues, most recently for The Center for Investigative Reporting + Reveal in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has focused on waste, fraud and abuse, with stories ranging from corruption and the expanded use of drones along the U.S.-Mexico border to police militarization and the intersection of politics and policy related to immigration, terrorism and drug trafficking. His reporting has appeared in news outlets such as the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and PBS/FRONTLINE, been cited in U.S. Supreme Court and District Court briefs and highlighted by John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight.” His work has been recognized by the Online News Association, Society of Professional Journalists and been nominated for a National Emmy, among others. He has taught at the University of Utah, and won fellowships from John Jay College in New York City and the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He also sits on an advisory board for the National Center on Disability and Journalism, based at Arizona State University. He received a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.