The Preventable Death of an ICE Detainee Amid a Pandemic Speaks to a Crisis of Civilization

May 15, 2020
5:07 PM

Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. (AP Photo/Elliot Spagat, File)

The death of 57-year-old Salvadoran national and ICE detainee Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejía was preventable and tragic. As a diabetic with an amputated foot, he was especially at risk of being infected with COVID-19 and was on a list to be potentially released from the Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego—with at least 140 confirmed cases, it is the epicenter of COVID-19 infections among ICE detainees.

His untimely death underscores the humanitarian crisis before the migration control apparatus, and points to a deeper crisis of civilization. Will we be a society governed by constitutional and human rights, compassion, and fairness, or by a cruel desire to punish those deemed unworthy of living?

Escobar Mejía was tragically the first to die, but he won’t be the last unless migrants are released quickly from detention centers. As of May 9, ICE has tested just 1,804 detainees nationwide for COVID-19, 965 of whom have been positive. A group of scientists with a forthcoming article in the Journal of Urban Health estimates that under the best circumstances, over 70% of ICE’s 27,908 detainees will become infected over a 90-day period unless drastic measures are taken.

The death of Escobar Mejía could have been avoided, as well as the one of Óscar López Acosta, who died of COVID-19 after being suddenly released from an ICE detention center in Ohio. In the case of Escobar Mejía, ICE refused to diligently comply with the preliminary injunction issued by Federal District Judge Jesus Vernal on April 20, ordering the agency to “promptly assess medically vulnerable people for COVID-19 risk factors and either immediately implement medically necessary precautions consistent with CDC standards of care, or release them.”

Under CDC guidelines, Escobar Mejía should have been released. But ICE was only trying to create the appearance of compliance rather than actually fulfill the spirit of the court’s injunction.

President Donald Trump’s administration is hard-set on keeping the migration control apparatus in full operation amid the COVID-19 pandemic, despite health and ethical concerns. In late April, Carl J. Nichols, a federal district judge appointed by Trump, rejected a request made by advocates to suspend hearings —including those involving children— during the pandemic.  This decision and others like it have empowered the president and his allies to further disregard the lives of migrants.

Such blatant disregard for the sanctity of Latino and Black migrants’ lives is consistent with the ideology of Trump’s immigration advisors, many of whom were plucked directly from the ranks of the Center for Immigration Studies and Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Largely considered hate groups, these organizations once operated on the margins of society under the leadership of their neo-eugenicist founder, John Tanton, who warned of a “Latin onslaught” and took money from the Pioneer Fund, a foundation that promotes research on “race betterment.” Neo-eugenicists like Tanton and his followers favor immigration policies that curb “third-world” migration and promote a so-called “merit-based system” that prioritizes European migrants.

Neo-eugenicist ideology is what has allowed the president and his advisors to systematically deny asylum to Latin Americans, to separate thousands of families, and to keep children in cages. Today, amid the worst pandemic in 100 years, it’s also what enables them to hold an unknown number of people in a vast and shady network of ICE detention facilities and government shelters, and to deport thousands of potentially infected people to Mexico, Central America, and Haiti.

In line with this neo-eugenicist ideology, Trump, and his allies perceive the virus as primarily targeting the weak, elderly, Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and apparently distant nations like Ecuador—and they act accordingly. Armed with a skepticism of science and cult-like veneration of Trump, they now feel emboldened and anxious to get the economy “back to where it was,” even if it requires an executive order sacrificing thousands of meatpackers and attacks on democratic institutions like the media, courts, and state governments.

Trump and the right-wing bloc are bringing us to the brink of a civilizational crisis. Civilizations are supposed to be advanced societies that muster wealth, technologies, and systems of governance to create harmony and resolve conflict in a fair, moral, and compassionate manner.

The last major crisis of civilization of the 20th century happened amid the rise of fascism and the outbreak of World War II, which saw 55–60 million people die. Despite its contradictions, the post-WWII order restored a sense of human decency and led to a consensus that there should be a social safety net, multilateralism, and human rights for all people, regardless of race, gender, religion, or ethnicity. Governments and racists resisted, but the era opened the door for the Refugee Convention and civil rights legislation, as well as for decolonization movements and the discrediting of racist eugenicist ideologies like apartheid globally.

Trump, with his talk of Mexican “rapists,” Central American “animals,” and “shithole countries,” has brought a particularly  insidious brand of American neo-eugenics back into the mainstream and into the commanding heights of the White House. His administration seeks to destroy the post-WWII order by undermining the constitution, the Refugee Convention, and the World Health Organization, and with them the social safety net, labor rights, and environmental protections.

We are not doomed to repeat history. But keeping the deportation-detention machinery running and sacrificing the life of Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejía and potentially millions more is disturbing. It is this type of disregard for human life that brings us one step closer to a 21st-century collapse of civilization.


Alfonso Gonzales Toribio is an Associate Professor and Director of Latin American Studies at the University of California Riverside. He is political theorist and author of the award winning book, Reform Without Justice: Latino Migrant Politics and the Homeland Security State (Oxford 2013). He has published opinion pieces in The Hill, HuffPost, Politico, among other outlets.