Life in the Time of the Coronavirus

I’m Being Held at a Border Detention Center. I’m Scared They’ll Let Us Die.

The virus spread quickly in San Diego’s Otay Mesa Detention Center. Detainees were given one mask and cleaning spray.

Life in the Time of the Coronavirus is a GEN series where we are interviewing people across the country who have had their lives upended or are experiencing the stress of the unknown.

This anonymous, 37-year-old Honduran man has been detained in the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, California, since August 26. The virus has spread quickly in Otay Mesa, with ICE now reporting that 20 detainees and eight ICE employees have tested positive for Covid-19. The outbreak, along with complaints from detainees about the impossibility of social distancing and lack of protective equipment, has sparked a hunger strike.

I’m from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, but had to flee in 2016 because gangs threatened to kill me. I had a shop where I fixed and sold cellphones. Twice I missed the rent payments — what the gang would collect every week — and they started looking for me. They showed up, armed, at my mom’s house and said they needed to talk to me. I escaped out the back and called a friend, who picked me up, and I headed to Mexico with my girlfriend at the time.

In Chiapas, another group of armed men kidnapped us and brought us to an abandoned house. I’m pretty sure they were part of a cartel. They beat us until my girlfriend’s family in the United States sent them money. After they released us, we filed a police report and left for Tijuana, because we knew that if you file a complaint your life is in danger.

In 2019, a man showed up at my work as a parking attendant in Tijuana. He knew my name, where I was from, how much money we had given the kidnappers. He wanted me to come with him. I said I couldn’t because I was working, but he said he would be back. I knew I was in trouble, so I went to the border to ask for asylum. I was put in the “Remain in Mexico” program, so I had to wait for my court date in Tijuana. At work, the man arrived with more people, who were armed. I wasn’t there but I knew they were going to look for me and I stopped going to work. On August 26, 2019, I had a court date in San Diego. I crossed the border and told the judge I was afraid to return to Mexico. I was sent to talk to an asylum officer. He said I didn’t have to return, that I could stay in the United States. That’s when they sent me to Otay Mesa.

Here, we are divided into pods. I’m in the H pod; it has a small table, a bed, and a toilet. Right now I am in a room by myself because I am a very anxious person due to everything that has happened to me, and because I have high blood pressure. My older sister died from a heart attack when she was only 42. I turned 37 last week. I was taking medication in Mexico for blood pressure, but the doctor here won’t give me medicine. She said I only need to exercise.

The other people in my pod have to share rooms, two people for each room. The rooms are so small that if someone sneezes it will land on the other person. Altogether there are about 80 people in my pod. It’s impossible for us to be spaced out. We’re stuck next to each other here. Our pod has people from Haiti, Guatemala, Vietnam, Brazil, Ecuador, Cuba, Kosovo, Eritrea, Jamaica, Honduras, Mexico, China — from everywhere.

I first heard about the coronavirus in early March. Some officials came and told us that there was a virus that was going around the world. They said that we are responsible if anything happens because we are supposed to keep everything clean. We do clean, with a chemical spray they gave us: We clean the telephone, the microwaves, the tables, and our rooms. But the problem is that we keep having guards come in from outside, and even if they are checked every day, they don’t really know if they are infected. There are guards who follow the rules, who wear gloves and masks, and others who don’t.

That’s all they’ve given us, one mask. They are simple, the kind you’re supposed to use for one day and throw away.

I first heard rumors about people being positive when I was working in the kitchen. We’d talk and put notes under the plates on people’s food trays to share information. At first, the officials told us there were no cases, but we knew that was a lie. If there were no cases, why were they putting people in quarantine? Why were so many guards not coming back?

Now they are telling us there are only 10 cases here, but we know there are a lot more. We have four televisions here and we watch the news, Telemundo and Univision. We see the stories about all the cases here, with lawyers and people from different organizations denouncing what is happening. And the fear inside is constant. Each day that passes, the fear grows.

For a long time, we weren’t given anything to protect ourselves. We asked for masks, gloves, and gel; they didn’t give them to us. They only give each of us a very small bar of soap, but not every day, and it’s not enough. We have to buy our own soap in the commissary, but a lot of people don’t have money in their accounts.

About a week ago they finally handed out masks, but they said they’d only give them to us if we signed a paper. It was in English, and it said that if we were given the mask they weren’t responsible if we got sick. We can’t be responsible; they are responsible for what happens here. So none of us signed it. Later that day they came back and gave us masks, even though we still refused to sign.

That’s all they’ve given us, one mask. They are simple, the kind you’re supposed to use for one day and throw away. Some people have tossed them. I kept mine and I’m cleaning it. I use vapor rub to clean it. There are Chinese people here who have made their own masks from their sheets and blankets. There is nothing else we can do. We are talking to our family members on the phone, talking to attorneys, but we don’t know what more we can do.

That’s why we are on a hunger strike. This is our third day, and 54 people in the pod are participating. We communicate a lot with sign language since a lot of us speak different languages. We want ICE to let us out. We aren’t criminals. I’ve never participated in anything like this, but I’m afraid of dying in here. I have a family that is waiting for me, that I can stay with if I am released.

That noise is people yelling. They just brought us our lunch. It comes on a tray that they roll in. They’re yelling because one of the people who is not joining us on the hunger strike ate his meal and then he went back to get the plate of someone who is on strike. We are mad because why should he benefit from our sacrifice? So someone took the plate and threw it in the trash and we cheered.

Journalist; most recent book is Chasing the Harvest, an oral history collection of farmworkers. www.gabrielthompson.org

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