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By Hannah Critchfield
Long before the novel coronavirus arrived in the Western Hemisphere, the date was set: On April 15, 2020, James Thomas Hill would be leaving his North Carolina prison.
The 72-year-old poet would write no more sonnets from the inside; as a tutor of many, he would have to root for his GED pupils from afar. He was going home.
Until he wasn’t.
Picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement upon his release, the Canadian citizen would wait for five months inside a migrant detention center during the pandemic due to bureaucratic delays. During that time, the federal government would transfer inmates into the facility who brought the virus. Eventually the outbreak in Farmville Detention Center, in Farmville, Virginia, evolved into the largest in the country’s immigration detention system.
“He said that it wasn’t a matter of if he was going to get it, but when,” said Verity Hill, James Hill’s daughter. “He knew that if he caught it he was screwed. Seven days before he was due to come home, he started getting sick.”
On August 5, he became the first of three ICE detainees to die within a week.
Two of them, Hill included, had just been released from North Carolina prisons, having served their time — as non-U.S. citizens, they were merely waiting to be deported.
More than twice as many people have died in ICE custody this year than last year, in part due to the immigration agency’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their deaths make this the deadliest year for people in immigration detention since 2006.
Transferring the virus
James Hill woke up to a drip on his forehead. It was sweat, belonging to the man sleeping just above him in their closely-packed bunk bed.
It’s hot inside an ICE detention center during summer in Virginia. As a prisoner in North Carolina and a longtime Louisiana resident, Hill was used to muggy weather, but he told his family he hadn’t expected the crowding, or the lack of masks or hand sanitizer, upon arriving in April to Farmville, a for-profit facility that contracts with the federal government to house immigrants. It was long after the pandemic had started, and still detainees were packed in tight.
“He’s been in four institutions, including the jail that he was in prior to sentencing,” said his daughter Verity Hill. “And he said that Farmville was by far the worst place he’d been.”
Conditions were heating up in more ways than one.
Two people in his dorm tested positive for COVID-19 in late May. Then on June 2, ICE transferred in 74 migrant detainees from detention centers in Arizona and Florida, which were becoming coronavirus hotspots. More than half of the transfers later tested positive for the virus.
By the next month, Farmville Detention Center had become the hardest-hit immigration facility in the country, with nearly 90 percent of detainees infected. The outbreak has been directly traced to the mass transfer, according to ICE data and emails first reported by Reuters.
Hill arrived at immigration detention after his release from Rivers Correctional Institute, a privately run federal prison in Winton, North Carolina. Rivers is the only facility in the state that houses non-citizens serving federal sentences, through an opaque partnership between the Bureau of Prisons and for-profit facilities known as the Criminal Alien Requirement.
Having served nearly 14 years of a 26-year-sentence for health care fraud, Hill, a doctor, was granted parole for good behavior, according to his family. (The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on the reason for his release, and the U.S. District Court of Western Louisiana in which he was convicted does not receive court filings related to emancipations.) Because he’d been convicted of a felony, ICE was obligated to detain him while he waited for removal from the country, the federal immigration agency said.
But what Hill’s family expected to be a swift deportation lagged for months.
“They needed to get him a temporary passport, and they needed an order of removal from a judge,” recalled Verity Hill. “But they kept scheduling for him to go before the [immigration] judge to do that and canceling it. And then it would be like two or three more weeks of waiting. No one gave any of us an explanation why. It was just, ‘No it’s been postponed, it’s been postponed.”
“It felt like he was being treated as a criminal all over again,” said his niece, Dianna Hill-Parke. “Even though he was paroled back in April. He did his time.”
ICE declined to comment on the delay in sending James Hill back to Canada. The Executive Office for Immigration Review, the branch of the Department of Justice that oversees immigration cases, has similarly not yet responded to requests for comment.
At first, Hill told his family he’d been placed in an isolation cell at Farmville due to his age, which placed him at higher risk for the virus.
“That’s the thing that really, really bugs me,” said Verity Hill. “When he first got there from North Carolina, they isolated him for his own safety because of the risk of COVID at his age. But then they took him out, and put him in a general dorm — I have no idea why.
“It’s like, on the one hand, they’re admitting that there’s a risk, and then on the other hand, they’re behaving as per usual.”
Even after the outbreak struck the facility in June, eventually infecting over 300 people, Hill told his family he and the other migrant detainees were not given access to masks or hand sanitizer. Demonstrations broke out over conditions, and guards responded with pepper spray. In his own dorm, a few migrants didn’t stand up for count one day — not because they were protesting, he told his family, but because they were too sick to stand. Guards responded with pepper spray — a canister landed by Hill’s bed, and he was hospitalized for respiratory issues and a full-body rash he contracted from the resulting blast.
“When he was discharged from the hospital that time, that was before his [COVID-19] diagnosis,” said Verity Hill. “And this is a big, big thing: The doctor at the hospital said to put him in the medical isolation unit when he got back to Farmville, do not put him in the general dorm. And they didn’t do it. They put him back in the general dorm. “
An immigration judge had issued Hill’s order of removal on May 12. James’s flight back to Ontario, Canada was set for July 9, nearly two months later.
It took until July 2 for the ICE facility to test all detainees. Because Hill’s results were “inconclusive,” according to his family, the agency delayed his flight until another test could be conducted.
“And that one, of course, came up positive,” said Verity Hill.
By then, James Hill had been hospitalized. He reported shortness of breath and was sent to a local community hospital on July 10, according to ICE. The next day, he was transferred to Lynchburg General Hospital, where medical staff administered a COVID-19 test that came back positive within hours.
Hill remained there for almost a month before succumbing to the virus last week.
“The hardest thing is he was so close,” said Verity Hill. “And the only reason he didn’t get here before the infection struck the facility is paperwork.”
“We all kind of go back and forth between anger and grief, and that’s what a lot of people do when someone dies,” said Hill-Parke. “But for us, it’s a little different. Because a normal death you can trust, but when it was in someone else’s hands, that’s where the questions come in.”
Hill-Parke said her cousin Jessica had a room prepared for their uncle, for when he finally came home.
“She’s got that room in her house right now,” said Hill-Parke. “Imagine having to walk around that empty room, knowing it was meant for him. It’s haunting.”
On Monday, a team of scientists from the Centers for Disease Control arrived at Farmville Detention Center to help address the outbreak. Three days earlier, the House Committee on Homeland Security asked for records related to the super-spreading at the Virginia facility following Hill’s death.
“His death is getting a lot of traction and I’m glad; it helps vindicate my father and it helps bring attention to the crisis,” said Verity Hill. “But he’s not the first COVID death in an ICE facility. The other people who died weren’t white, and I wonder if my dad had not been white if this would be as public an issue.”
A few states over, in Georgia, another man who had been released on parole from a North Carolina prison on July 10 died in ICE custody late Monday night. Jose Guillen-Vega, a 70-year-old Costa Rican man, died of a heart attack and complications due to COVID-19.
He’d been at Stewart Detention Center, another privately run ICE facility, after being transferred from Alamance Detention Center, a local North Carolina jail that temporarily holds immigrants on behalf of the federal government, on July 15.
So far, 18 people have died in federal immigration agency custody this year.