ICE identifies second detainee to die from COVID-19 in southwest Georgia

70-year-old Costa Rican overstayed his visa and was awaiting deportation
A 70-year-old man who was being held at Stewart Detention Center in Southwest Georgia died in a Columbus hospital from COVID-19 Monday, according to Stewart County Coroner Sybil Ammons. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

A 70-year-old man who was being held at Stewart Detention Center in Southwest Georgia died in a Columbus hospital from COVID-19 Monday, according to Stewart County Coroner Sybil Ammons. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The 70-year-old Costa Rican man who died in the custody of federal immigration authorities in southwest Georgia this week while suffering from COVID-19 had overstayed his visa and was awaiting deportation at the time of his death, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Wednesday.

Jose Guillen-Vega was pronounced dead at 11:37 p.m. Monday at Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital, where he had been hospitalized since Aug. 1, according to ICE. ICE identified his preliminary cause of death as “cardiopulmonary arrest, secondary to complications of coronavirus disease.” Guillen-Vega also suffered from diabetes and hypertension, said Stewart County Coroner Sybil Ammons.

Guillen-Vega entered the United States in El Paso, Texas, in 1999 with authorization to remain until 2000. He stayed beyond that date and was convicted of statutory rape and taking indecent liberties with a child in in Lincolnton, N.C., before being sentenced to 20 years in prison, according to ICE. ICE said it took custody of him on July 10 following his release from a North Carolina prison and transported him to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., five days later.

He is the second ICE detainee to die in southwest Georgia after being diagnosed with COVID-19. In May, Santiago Baten-Oxlaj, 34, a Guatemalan man, succumbed to COVID-19 after being held at Stewart. He had been hospitalized in Columbus since April 17 with symptoms of the coronavirus disease, according to ICE.

Baten-Oxlaj is among 154 Stewart detainees who had tested positive for the disease, as of Friday, according to ICE’s figures. Stewart, which has capacity for 1,900 detainees, has held people from more than 140 countries and nearly every continent.

CoreCivic — the Nashville-based corrections business that operates Stewart through agreements with Stewart County and ICE — confirmed Tuesday that 79 of its employees who work at the facility had tested positive for the disease. Of those, 64 had recovered and been medically cleared to return to work. The rest are recovering at home, according to CoreCivic.

“I have worked very close with them over the years and this has been probably the worse challenge they have had to deal with here,” Ammons said of the immigration detention center.

Nationwide, 4,417 ICE detainees have tested positive for COVID-19. That represents about 21% of ICE’s total detainee count from Friday at 21,494. Three other detainees who were being held by ICE outside of Georgia have died from the disease.

Guillen-Vega is the sixth 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, a fourth man died from a heart infection and multi-organ failure.

Meanwhile, Stewart ranks third — behind Chattahoochee and Echols — among Georgia’s 159 counties for its number of confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, according to the state Department of Public Health. South of Columbus and Fort Benning, Stewart is home to about 6,600 people, more than a third of whom live in poverty. As of Monday afternoon, 255 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Stewart.

At the Four County Health and Rehabilitation nursing home in Richland, 51 residents have tested positive for the disease and eight have died from it. Ammons said she knows of two other Stewart residents who have succumbed to COVID-19.

ICE’s critics have called on the agency to free vulnerable detainees amid the pandemic.

“This was an awful and preventable tragedy,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South. “There is no reason that a 70-year-old should have been held at a deadly facility in the midst of a pandemic. How many more tragedies at Stewart before people are released and the government shuts down this horrendous facility?”

“We mourn this senseless loss of life, the death of Jose Freddy Guillen-Vega, who had health complications, including diabetes, and who should have never been sent to Stewart Detention Center,” said Amilcar Valencia, executive director of El Refugio. “We affirm Mr. Guillen-Vega’s human dignity. His life was precious and sacred, as valuable as the life of every person.”

To prevent the spread of the disease at Stewart, ICE is screening new detainees for COVID-19 and segregating those with fevers and respiratory symptoms. ICE said it has also released more than 900 detainees — across the nation — who might be at higher risk for severe illness.

“The health, welfare and safety of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees,” the agency says on its website, “is one of the agency’s highest priorities.”

CoreCivic said it is working with local and state health departments to conduct COVID-19 testing.

“CoreCivic is working hard to protect our employees, those entrusted to our care, and our communities during the COVID-19 pandemic,” CoreCivic spokesman Ryan Gustin said.