(Reuters) - The first immigrant in U.S. detention with the novel coronavirus died this week, according to federal officials and local health authorities, as infections steadily climbed among the nearly 30,000 migrants in U.S. custody nationwide.
A 57-year-old man originally from El Salvador was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in January of this year and was being held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego before he died on Thursday at an area hospital.
Carlos Escobar-Mejia had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, on April 24 and was hospitalized, ICE said in a statement. The San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency had earlier confirmed his death.
A medical screening conducted when he was arrested found Escobar-Mejia had hypertension and he also self-identified as diabetic, ICE said. He had been in the United States since 1980 and previously was arrested and released in 2012, the agency said in a statement.
Overall, more than 700 immigrants in ICE custody have tested positive for the virus out of around 1,400 tested nationally.
The Otay Mesa facility near the U.S.-Mexico border, which was holding 629 detainees in early May, now has more infections than any other center in the country. As of May 5, 140 of the 181 detainees who have been tested at the center have come back positive for COVID-19. ICE stopped receiving new detainees at the center on April 2.
While ICE has dialed back arrest operations and agreed to review cases of some at-risk immigrants in custody, it still has tens of thousands in detention and is proceeding with deportation flights.
Pro-immigrant advocates have called for detainees - particularly low-level offenders - to be released from custody given the risks of contracting COVID-19 in detention.
Ranit Mishori from the nonprofit group Physicians for Human Rights said advocates have been sounding the alarm about the health and safety of immigrants in detention.
“The government cannot say it did not know this would happen,” Mishori said in a statement. “All people deserve to shelter in place with their families rather than be confined to the potential death traps of ICE detention facilities.”
Attorneys have filed lawsuits seeking parole for many detainees and ICE said nearly 200 have been released so far after court orders. Most of those released had criminal charges or convictions, the agency said.
The coronavirus has infected about 1.2 million people in the United States and killed around 74,000 as of late Wednesday.
The global death toll from the disease stands at over 262,000, with about 3.8 million infections.
Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Kanishka Singh and Aakriti Bhalla in Bengaluru; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis