FARMVILLE, Va. (WRIC) — Despite winning his case in immigration court, a former detainee at the Farmville detention center says fear of the coronavirus while at the facility outweighed the concern of returning home and eventually drove him to consider his own deportation.

The man, identified only by his initials, S.H., due to safety concerns, was taken into custody by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement last winter before the pandemic struck, according to his lawyers from the Capital Area Immigrants’​ Rights (CAIR) Coalition. After months in the detention center, S.H. went to trial in early spring to argue a defense from removal based on fear of returning to his home country.

In the end, the judge ruled in his favor but S.H. remained inside the detention center for several months as the Department of Homeland Security appealed his case. Following the latest on the pandemic through the news, S.H. shared that his anxiety grew as he continued to hear about a growing death toll.

“I was very worried and actually very scared as I kept hearing about people with the disease dying,” S.H. said in Spanish through a translator. “I just wanted to get out as fast as I could.”

A photo of the bunk units in one of the dorms in the Farmville immigration detention center. (photo from CDC report)

After his victory in court, S.H. alleges that a group of detainees approached a deportation officer about the possibility of being sent back home. He claimed the ICE official eventually brought out a “notebook” and asked those who wished to be deported to write their name and A-Number, a nine-digit number used to identify detainees, down on a list.

ICE declined an interview but a spokesperson said in a statement that, “At no time, did ICE official pass around a list for detainees to ‘volunteer for deportation.’”

S.H., who said he put his name down out of fear of the virus, claimed that he knew about 10 to 12 other detainees who also signed.

“I was really scared at that moment,” he told 8News. “I kept thinking about all the COVID cases. So, I don’t know, I just put my name down on the list and I didn’t know what would happen with it and until today I still don’t know really what it means for me.”

The CAIR Coalition attorney representing S.H., Lorna Julien, told 8News she reached out to the deportation officer out of concern that it would impact it his case. She said she was assured it didn’t.

8News Investigation: Nearly 90 percent of ICE detainees in Farmville tested positive for COVID-19 after transfers from Florida, Arizona

Library and reading area of the Farmville detention center on 06.24.2010 (Photo by Paul Caffrey U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

S.H. said he also sent a letter to the judge asking whether it would be in his best interest to return to his home country, despite his fears of going back. He told 8News that he wrote to the judge that if he went back “at least he would die where he knew.”

S.H. alleges opting for deportation in the early summer, as the pandemic was raging across the country and ahead of one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks an immigration detention center has seen.

The Farmville detention center struggled to mitigate a widespread COVID-19 outbreak that infected more than 300 detainees from June to early July due to the facility’s housing design and testing delays, according to an August report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The nation’s top public health agency sent a 10-person team, made up of clinicians, laboratorians and epidemiologists, to the facility on Aug. 10 after Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Virginia’s two U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, sent separate letters to President Donald Trump requesting that the CDC intervene and assist with the outbreak immediately. 

In its report, the CDC concluded the facility’s limited number of rooms prevented it from properly quarantining detainees and that delays and issues with testing samples affected its ability “to implement appropriate medical isolation and timely quarantine cohorting.”

Bunk beds at Farmville’s ICE facility on 06.24.2010 (Photo by Paul Caffrey U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

“The COVID-19 outbreak in the FDC was difficult to manage and mitigate due to the housing design and limited number of rooms to medically isolate or quarantine persons who were sick or were waiting for test results to return,” the CDC report states. “The initial focus of testing symptomatic persons, long delays in receiving testing results, and issues that prevented samples from being processed by the laboratory limited the FDC’s ability to implement appropriate medical isolation and timely quarantine cohorting.”

S.H. said he was tested after feeling symptoms for two weeks but claimed that he didn’t get his results — which were negative — for a month. He then said he was given a second test after officials told him there was an issue with the first test. Those results were also negative and also took nearly a month to come back, according to S.H.

The outbreak at Farmville during the summer was fueled by the transfer of 74 ICE detainees from different facilities in Arizona and Florida. 

The detention center, privately owned by Richmond-based Immigration Centers of America, can house 700 people. The transfer, which led to a federal lawsuit claiming that Farmville didn’t follow protocol, increased the number of detainees at Farmville from 399 to 473. After confirming four cases, the facility began testing all of the transfers and 51 of the 74 transfers were positive. 

Photo of the standard clothing issued once arriving at the ICE detention center on 06.24.2010 (Photo by Paul Caffrey U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Nineteen of the 23 transfers who tested negative were moved to a dorm that “had been vacated and cleaned.” The remaining four were each moved to separate dorms with other detainees, however, on June 16 one of them began feeling symptoms and eventually, from June 17 to July 2, all four tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Before the CDC team arrived, a 72-year-old Canadian man who was in custody at the facility died in August after spending nearly a month in the hospital with the virus. The man, James T. Hill, was scheduled to be deported when he reported shortness of breath. Hill was admitted to the hospital on July 10 and then tested positive for the novel coronavirus the next day.

A federal judge granted an injunction blocking the detention center from transferring detainees into the facility, one of the key reasons there are no active COVID-19 cases at the facility, after Hill’s death.

The CDC warned that the threat of the virus spreading in the facility is not over and suggested several procedures to follow, including developing ways to provide more space for detainees in dorms. 

Dorms at Farmville
Dorm room at Farmville ICE Detention Center that sleeps over 80 people. (Photo: CAIR April Lawsuit)

“The risk of reintroduction of SARS-CoV-2 into the FDC still exists,” the report said. “Continued and enhanced surveillance of symptoms among detained persons, staff, and visitors; testing of detained persons (including at the time of transfer and release) and staff; prompt medical isolation (including exclusion from indoor or outdoor recreation or assigned jobs) for persons testing positive; consistent implementation of medical isolation for persons testing positive and quarantine for their close contacts; serial testing for close contacts who are quarantined as cohorts; and providing additional spacing in dormitories and bunk bed assignments will remain critical activities to reduce COVID-19 among detained persons in this facility.”

S.H. said the facility was not meant for social distancing, with beds in dorms so close that you can feel others breathing through the night, but that leaders at ICA-Farmville eventually spread detainees out. He said instead of having four people on top of the bunk beds — pictured above — officials made sure to have just two with them sleeping in an “X” formation to keep separate.

While steps were taken and detainees were tested multiple times, S.H. believes that the Farmville detention center did not do enough to quell his concerns of the virus.

“As far as I was concerned, I didn’t think they were doing enough to make us feel secure because they would transfer us to the doctor, we would go to the kitchen, where we were working, and there we were mixing with others,” S.H. said.

After more than 14 months at the facility, S.H.’s attorneys got him released on bond after Christmas. The Department of Homeland Security is currently appealing the judge’s ruling in the case.