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Two men in Texas immigration detention are undergoing treatment after being bitten by a bat

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say the detention center where the bites occurred is being inspected.

A bat emerging from below the Congress Street Bridge near downtown Austin on July 27, 2011.

Two immigrants in a South Texas detention center suffered bat bites earlier this week, and at least one is undergoing treatment “just in case the bat was rabid,” the immigrant's attorney told the Texas Tribune.

One bite occurred at around 1 a.m. Sunday at the Rio Grande Detention Center in Webb County, according to San Antonio-based immigration attorney Laura Figueroa. Her client, Yonathan Eduardo Morales Galviz, was taken to the hospital at about 3:30 a.m. that day and then taken back to the facility soon after.

Fewer details are available about the other case. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed the bites in a short statement to the Tribune on Friday. 

"The area the bat was found in was temporarily evacuated, and the facility is currently undergoing a thorough inspection and abatement plan that is consistent with state and federal protections," the statement said. 

The detention center is managed by the Florida-based GEO Group, which has a contract with ICE to operate the facility. Morales, who is originally from Venezuela, was detained in Texas after seeking asylum at the port of entry in Laredo.

Figueroa said Morales told her that there have been several bats at the detention center and that guards have gone so far as to tell detainees to kill the winged mammals — and alert the staff when they do so the bats can be disposed of. That practice has led to uncertainty about whether the bat that bit Morales was rabid.

“The bat was actually thrown away. So, by the time they figured out where the bat was, it was too late to test it for rabies,” Figueroa said. “[His treatment] was supposed to begin [Thursday].”

Figueroa said late Friday morning that her client had received one injection but needs more vaccinations.

It can take weeks, or even months, for someone bit by a rabid animal to begin showing signs of rabies, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But the bat would have had to have already shown symptoms in order to infect Morales.

The CDC also notes that there have been prior cases of rabies reported in the particular part of South Texas where the detention center is located.

Figueroa said she was told by her client the bat problem existed before Morales was bitten, and another client described an opening in the roof area where bats or other critters can breach the facility. But Figueroa said she was told the biting was an isolated incident and there was “one bat.”

The GEO Group acknowledged the incident and said the company was moving forward with improvements.

“This past weekend, a bat was able to access one of the housing units at the Rio Grande Detention Center,” Pablo E. Paez, the GEO Group’s executive vice president of corporate relations, said in an email. “Medical treatment has been provided to two detainees who received bat bites, and enhancements are already underway to the eaves of all buildings to ensure no such occurrences in the future.”

Figueroa said the detainees were likely reluctant to sound alarm bells earlier because they feared retribution.

“They know that these people are not going to complain about the situation because they’re scared,” she said. “They think, 'If I say something, I am going to get in trouble.’ The first thing my client asked was ‘How is going public going to affect my case? ‘”

Controversy isn’t new for the GEO Group. The company, which was formerly known as Wackenhut, was sued in 2006 after a detainee, Gregorio de la Rosa, was beaten to death in one of the company’s facilities in Willacy County. That incident caused an uproar in Laredo when the company announced the opening of the Rio Grande Detention Center. And just last month the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled a lawsuit against the company seeking millions in damages could move forward after the company tried to have the case dismissed, The Denver Post reported.

The bat bite is the latest in a series of incidents that began when Morales first arrived in the United States more than 17 years ago. He entered the country in 2000 with a tourist visa and remained here after it expired. When he was 17 he was arrested on a theft charge after taking from an acquaintance’s house what Morales said was his video game.

But he was convicted when he was 18 and eventually deported to Venezuela. While he was there, he worked for Luisa Ortega, an ally of former President Hugo Chavez. She later denounced his successor and current leader, President Nicolas Maduro, and Morales said his relationship with Ortega led him to fear for his life and seek asylum in the United States. 

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