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ICE detainee held in South Georgia dies from COVID-19

A Guatemalan man who was held at Stewart Detention Center in South Georgia died Sunday, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which identified his preliminary cause of death as complications from COVID-19. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A Guatemalan man who was held at Stewart Detention Center in South Georgia died Sunday, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which identified his preliminary cause of death as complications from COVID-19. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Dozens of workers have caught virus at immigration detention center

A Guatemalan man who was held at Stewart Detention Center in South Georgia has died, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which identified his preliminary cause of death as complications from COVID-19.

Santiago Baten-Oxlaj, 34, was pronounced dead at 5:03 a.m. Sunday at Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital, where he had been hospitalized since April 17 with symptoms of the coronavirus disease, said ICE. The federal agency did not say where he may have contracted his illness.

Meanwhile, CoreCivic — the Nashville-based corrections business that operates Stewart through agreements with Stewart County and ICE — confirmed Monday that 51 of its employees who work at the facility have tested positive for the disease. Of those, 38 have recovered and been medically cleared to return to work.

Located just outside the small city of Lumpkin, Georgia, Stewart has capacity for 1,900 detainees. It has detained people from more than 140 countries and nearly every continent. Sixteen of its detainees and two ICE employees who work there have tested positive for COVID-19, according to ICE.

Baten-Oxlaj is at least the second ICE detainee to die this month after exhibiting symptoms of the disease. On May 6, Carlos Escobar-Mejia, 57, of El Salvador passed away at a hospital in National City, California, where he was treated for the disease. He had been held at ICE's Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego.

To prevent the spread of the disease, the agency is screening new detainees for COVID-19 and segregating those with fevers and respiratory symptoms.

“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases,” ICE said in a news release about Baten-Oxlaj’s death.

CoreCivic said it is checking the temperatures of all detainees daily, serving meals in their housing units instead of in the dining facility and distributing masks.

“We’re working closely with our partners at Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ensure the health and safety of everyone at the Stewart Detention Center,” CoreCivic spokesman Ryan Gustin said in an email.

ICE said it arrested Baten-Oxlaj at a municipal probation office in Marietta on March 2 following his conviction for driving under the influence. On March 26, according to ICE, a federal immigration judge ordered him to return to his country when it would be medically safe for him to do so.

Baten-Oxlaj is the fifth Stewart detainee to die since 2017. Two detainees have hanged themselves in their solitary confinement cells in Stewart since that year. A third died in 2018 from pneumonia. Last year, the fourth died from a heart infection and multi-organ failure.

Immigrant rights activists have called on ICE to free vulnerable detainees amid the pandemic. ICE has said it is consulting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and reviewing cases of pregnant detainees, those who are 60 years old or older and others “who may be more vulnerable to COVID-19.”

Marty Rosenbluth, an immigration attorney based in Lumpkin, said his clients at Stewart told him they don’t know of anyone who has been tested for the disease there, even those who have complained of illnesses.

“This was a death that was waiting to happen,” Rosenbluth said. “And the only thing that is surprising is that it hadn’t come sooner.”