This article is copublished with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.
It was a historic occasion for the South Texas town of Pearsall when officials broke ground in 2004 on what would become one of the country’s largest immigration detention centers.
Not only would it help improve border security, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said then, it would also bring employment to the small rural community, about 60 miles from San Antonio. Hundreds of good jobs for a region that desperately needed them.
But now, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread inside immigration detention centers, local leaders here in an extraordinary move have called on the company that runs the center, the GEO Group, to publicly explain itself. They say the company has not been transparent, and has failed to respond to emails and letters seeking answers to a simple question: What is the GEO Group doing to prevent the virus outbreak inside the privately owned facility from creeping into their community?
The leaders have invited company officials to attend the Frio County commissioners meeting Monday and sent a list of 20 detailed questions, ranging from what safeguards are in place to protect employees and detainees to how it can make the information more readily available to the community.
“We did our part, we financed their construction. Now it’s time to hold them accountable, to help us,” said Jose Asuncion, a recently elected county commissioner who over the years has been pushing for more transparency in the for-profit detention industry.
“For many of us, this could be a matter of life and death,” a group of nine area elected officials and a candidate, including Asuncion, wrote in the open letter to the GEO Group on May 5.
The letter was drafted before the number of confirmed cases inside the South Texas ICE Processing Center jumped from seven to 31 detainees, as of Friday. Seven employees have also been infected.
ICE said there were 900 detainees in custody in Pearsall last week.
Outside the center, Frio County, with a population of about 19,000, reports only two confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“This is an example of how things can quickly get out of hand if the virus gets transported into our community,” Frio County Attorney Joseph Sindon said. “We were at zero cases two weeks ago.”
The GEO Group says that it has been in communication with local leaders, although it didn’t specify who, and that it has taken steps to mitigate the risks. “We take our responsibility to ensure the health and safety of all those in our care and our employees with the utmost seriousness,” the company said in a statement Friday, adding that it would continue to work with the federal government and local officials to develop COVID-19 emergency plans and testing policies and to procure supplies for staff and detainees.
Nationwide, there are nearly 800 confirmed cases inside immigration detention centers. More than 1 in 4 of those cases are in Texas.
But the number is likely higher as Immigration and Customs Enforcement has tested only about 5% of its detained population. More than half of those have tested positive.
Most detained migrants are held in privately owned facilities, which have come under fire for allegations of poor treatment and conditions. Among those owners is Florida-based GEO Group, which generated $2.4 billion in revenue in 2019 and has been a big donor to federal, state and local candidates, primarily Republicans, and GOP political action committees, records show.
In response to the pandemic, ICE says it’s taking steps to minimize the spread of the virus. It has limited some arrests, suspended social visits and released more than 900 detainees since March who might be vulnerable.
Transfers between immigration facilities and from local jails, many dealing with their own outbreaks, continue, though, contrary to CDC recommendations. Between March 1 and April 25, ICE reported more than 3,300 immigrants arrested by local law enforcement were then turned over to the federal agency, including some sent to Pearsall, according to detainees and lawyers.
Advocates, elected officials and medical professionals say what ICE is doing hasn’t been enough, and cite the agency’s poor track record containing infectious disease. They continue to call for the release of migrants in custody, especially those with underlying health conditions.
The first death due to COVID-19 inside an immigration detention center was reported Wednesday. The victim was a 57-year-old Salvadoran man held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in California, where 139 detainees have so far tested positive, by far the largest cluster across the country.
Asuncion said he decided to make the letter to GEO public in response to constituents’ concerns that the county government was not giving them answers.
He expected to be the only leader to sign the letter, Asuncion said last week. “By the time I emailed the draft of the letter, everybody had a sense that the situation was only going to get worse, and they didn’t want to seem like they didn’t do or say anything early on.”
“We can no longer sit back and wait for tragedy to occur, action must be taken now! What we want is simple answers and to be proactive as a whole,” Ramiro Treviño, a candidate for the Frio County Commissioners Court, posted on Facebook May 6 after learning of 15 additional cases inside the center. “Please pray for each and every individual affected by this.”
His post was followed by an “Amen,” from Davina Treviño Rodriguez, a Pearsall City Council member, who offered her own prayer.
One of the better employers
When GEO’s predecessor, the Correctional Services Corporation, got the contract for the Pearsall center in 2004, officials sold it as a way to bring jobs. The 230,000-square-foot facility built on a former farm field would employ 300 people and have an annual payroll of about $6.2 million.
A prospective applicant needed only to be at least 21 and have a high school diploma or GED and no serious criminal record. Entry-level security wages would be in the $12-an-hour range, they said.
The center would also generate hundreds of thousands of tax dollars for the school district. Frio County issued a $49 million bond to finance construction, reported the local newspaper, the Frio-Nueces Current.
For the company, it meant annual revenues of about $21.7 million, according to news reports.
The center opened in 2005 with a capacity of about 1,000 men and women. A year later, it added 884 detainees and another $11.3 million annually in operating revenue.
Under a 2011 contract, GEO expected annual revenue of $45 million with a 75% occupancy guarantee from ICE, a news release from the company said.
Frio County is about 80% Hispanic and has a median household income of $42,000, about 30% below the national median, according to the U.S. Census. About 1 in 5 people live below the poverty level. Very few have a college degree. The economy revolves mostly around agribusiness, oil and hunting.
The South Texas ICE Processing Center became one of the better employers in the community, said Sindon, the Frio County attorney.
“You can hardly find a family that doesn’t have someone that works there,” he said.
Frio County, like many communities in Texas, is the type of place where prisons are seen as the solution “to most, if not all of our problems,” said Asuncion, 39, who lives in Dilley. That town also has a large detention center, run by CoreCivic, another giant in the for-profit detention business.
“We look at them for safety, we look at them as economic saviors,” he said.
Asuncion was raised in Chicago and lived in Los Angeles before moving to Dilley to take care of his grandmother eight years ago. Immediately he became interested in the for-profit detention center visible from his home and started asking questions. He even did a short stint as a local reporter, and said he was stonewalled in his efforts to get information.
He said he’s tried reaching out to officials at the Pearsall facility directly about the outbreak, leaving messages and sending emails to the addresses he has. “But at a certain point you say I shouldn’t be chasing these guys down in this situation, I’m a commissioner.”
Other large ICE detention centers in the country are operated by LaSalle Corrections, Management & Training Corp. and Immigration Centers of America. Nine of the 10 facilities in Texas with positive cases of COVID-19 are owned by one of these corporations.
The GEO Group grew from a division of a private security firm to an international giant operating detention centers in several countries, including 67 in the United States with about 75,000 beds.
Over the years, these for-profit companies have given millions to candidates and groups that support them.
The GEO Group spent over $1.5 million on lobbying in 2019, according to lobbying disclosures. About a quarter of their business went to Ballard Partners, which continues to lobby the White House and the Department of Homeland Security on GEO’s behalf to promote the use of private prison and detention centers.
So far in the 2020 election cycle, the GEO Group’s PAC has given $100,000 to Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee for the Trump campaign and other Republicans. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the number of immigrants in detention had reached an all-time high under President Donald Trump, who ran on an anti-immigration platform.
Texas politicians are also among the beneficiaries. During the current cycle, the GEO Group’s PAC has given $5,000 to Sen. Cornyn, a Texas Republican, and $9,700 to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo.
While its last inspection in February by an ICE contractor found it to be in compliance, as with other detention centers across the country, the South Texas ICE Processing Center has had a checkered history.
Detainees have complained and sued after claiming that staff repeatedly placed them into isolation. Human rights reports have documented allegations of sexual abuse and cited the facility in reports documenting the high number of recent deaths inside ICE detention facilities.
On its website, the GEO Group emphasizes one of the company’s core values is that “every human being should be treated with dignity and that his or her basic human rights should be respected and preserved at all times.”
Hunger strikes by detainees. Confrontations with guards.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread in March, so did confrontations between detainees and guards.
Inside the South Texas ICE Processing Center in Pearsall, migrants clashed with guards over what they called unsafe conditions, demanding to be released. The unrest led to a standoff in which guards shot pepper spray at the detainees. Nine immigrants were held on disciplinary charges.
There weren't any reported COVID-19 cases then, but soon they started trickling in and the more positives were reported inside the detention centers, the more detainees feared they would be next.
Over the last couple of months, half a dozen asylum seekers have told ProPublica/Texas Tribune about not having enough cleaning supplies, masks and gloves, their inability to stay the recommended six feet apart, holding those who test positive together in rooms with poor ventilation and hygiene they say have helped spread the virus.
Kathrine Russell, an attorney with the immigrant legal services group RAICES, said GEO has recently started to take additional steps at the South Texas center, including issuing detainees masks. “Measures that they should have taken from the beginning,” she said. “If they had, we might not be in the situation we are now.”
There have been at least five hunger strikes inside the Pearsall facility, detainees say — some to demand more information, others to call for more testing as migrants in their units came down with the virus.
A man who was transferred from the Bexar County jail said he believed the outbreak at Pearsall began with someone who had been taken there from the jail. More than 300 inmates and 55 staff members there have contracted the virus since March.
“My question to the officers is why did they keep bringing people from Bexar if they knew they were infected?” said one detainee, who asked that his name not be used fearing retaliation. Between March 1 and April 25, 174 people were transferred from Bexar County to ICE facilities.
Detainees in Pearsall said they at times were given false information about positive cases. On one occasion, staff had said they had nothing to worry about, before returning days later to confirm that one of the men in their unit had tested positive.
In an April earnings release, GEO’s CEO, George Zoley, said that his company has worked to procure safety supplies, do temperature checks and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and that all of its facilities have "access to regular hand-washing with clean water and soap, round-the-clock healthcare, and typically have approximately double the number of healthcare staff, compared to state correctional facilities."
But this is contrary to what multiple detainees and their advocates from facilities across the country continue to report, including in lawsuits and complaints.
“It’s been horrible,” said Yanet Cabrera, whose 54-year-old mother was recently transferred from Pearsall to another detention center in Laredo. “I can’t stop thinking that she can get sick, that I can lose her in there and I have no way of helping her.”
There are no known cases in the center where her mother is now, but Cabrera said she wasn’t tested before leaving the South Texas facility.
Disappointment. Fear. Concern.
Even with claims of precautions in place, Pearsall and Frio County officials and residents say they remain concerned.
“Anybody following this and listening to experts knows large groups of people in close proximity creates the possibility for a firestorm of cases,” said Sindon, the county attorney.
He sighs when asked about the latest number of confirmed cases inside the Pearsall facility. He feels “disappointment, fear, concern for our community,” he said. “The detainees can’t leave, but the guards certainly can. We have to hope GEO is taking appropriate steps.”
The entire county only has three ventilators and 48 hospital beds. A model from researchers in the U.S. and Canada, including Traci Green, an epidemiologist at Brandeis University, estimated that the South Texas ICE Processing Center could have up to 1,345 detainees contract the virus over 90 days under the most optimistic scenario. In a yet to be published article in the Journal of Urban Health, a peer-reviewed publication that focuses on urban health and epidemiology, the group’s model projected that between 72% and nearly 100% of ICE detainees could contract the virus in a 90-day period given conditions inside the centers and average populations.
“The real challenge is that once it starts in a closed space, it’s likely to spread very quickly,” Green said, “and will advance where a certain portion of the population will need hospitalization and ICU admissions,” a local community hospital will need to accommodate.
The other county and city leaders who signed the letter didn’t return calls, emails or requests for comment via social media, including the mayor of Pearsall, where the center is located.
Frio County Judge Arnulfo Luna also wrote a letter to the GEO Group administrator who runs the Pearsall facility “to implore” him to keep workers and detainees safe, especially given the county’s inability to regulate the center’s employees and contractors.
“As you know the employees and contractors who work at your facility live in the surrounding Frio County communities of Pearsall, Dilley, Moore and Derby,” Luna wrote. “The citizens that make up these communities are increasingly concerned that the high risk of exposure to those inside of your facility will lead to an outbreak outside of it, and our communities will be put at greater risk.” As of Friday, county officials said they had not received a response.
GEO Group said it will provide a “comprehensive response to the county detailing the steps we have taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a responsible community partner, we make ourselves available to provide information to the communities we serve.”
“This is the first time I really ever noticed the city and county taking a critical view of the detention center,” said Russell, the attorney with clients in Pearsall. “Which I think in some ways is probably good.”