Chelsea Portillo explains how ICE detained her husband, Tulio, in August 2020. Credit: Photo collage by Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Immigrants detained by ICE in Minnesota jails have worried about the spread of COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic here in March. Now, more than half the state’s active detainee infections have appeared in a single jail facility in south central Minnesota. 

To date, 26 detainees in Minnesota have been infected with the virus. But 16 of those COVID-19 cases are active right now, according to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. All of the infected detainees are housed in Kandiyohi County Jail in Willmar, and all currently remain in isolation.

ICE usually places people in custody based on their immigration status and past civil or criminal infractions, while they wait for their immigration cases to be resolved. 

Daniel Romero, a community minister with Lyndale United Church of Christ in Minneapolis and a member of the Interfaith Coalition on Immigration, called the rate of increasing COVID-19 infections at ICE facilities in Minnesota “very troubling.”

“Of course, these are not just numbers; they are immigrant detainees themselves,” Romero said. 

And anxiety over the virus isn’t limited to just those detainees who’ve tested positive. Tulio Portillo, one of the detainees, is now worried that he could get the virus because he knows he’s been exposed to it, according to his wife, Chelsea Portillo. One of Tulio’s neighbors at the facility  fell ill in recent days, and Tulio prayed with him to get better. Just today, this detainee entered isolation after testing positive, according to Chelsea Portillo.

When detainees do test positive, they’re quarantined in isolation for two weeks, an unappealing prospect for many, including Tulio. 

“If he does get COVID, he doesn’t want to tell anybody because he doesn’t want to be locked up for 14 days,” Chelsea, 29, said. 

Tulio came to the U.S. from Honduras without documentation a decade ago to flee gang violence in his home country, Chelsea said. He and Chelsea married in 2017; their toddler, Brian, is 18 months old. They live in North Branch and Tulio, the family breadwinner, has been working as a server at a restaurant for the past 10 years. 

Tulio’s detention is now nearing four months and he faces a deportation order.

Officials with the Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office did not return Sahan Journal’s calls before press time seeking comment on the matter. Earlier this year, during the start of the pandemic, a Kandiyohi County jail administrator told Sahan Journal that the jail checks all officers and staff every day for COVID-19 symptoms. He added that the Sheriff’s Office was arresting fewer people overall, and that all new inmates go into a 14-day isolation period. 

Reached by phone, a spokesperson for ICE referred Sahan Journal to a webpage explaining the agency’s response to the pandemic since it began. The webpage reports that ICE has released more than 7,000 detainees since March of this year, including 900 who were deemed at increased medical risk if infected. All detainees who show COVID-19 symptoms are placed in rooms separate from the general population. 

Indeed, ICE states that as of December 4, the agency was detaining just over 16,000 people across the country. That’s a sharp drop from last year’s all-time high of 50,000 immigrant detainees—welcome news to pro-immigrant advocates like Romero.

“We want to see that number continue to decrease,” Romero said. 

Nationwide, ICE cities 492 detainees who are currently infected with the virus. Since the pandemic began, 7,800 ICE detainees have tested positive and eight have died. 

Earlier this year, 62 ICE detainees in Sherburne County filed for emergency release from custody, citing the agency’s and the jail’s inability to guarantee full safety from the virus. A federal judge rejected their argument in May, ruling that Sherburne County had taken good faith measures to reduce the spread of the virus and was partly hampered by a lack of testing supplies across the country. 

At the time, no ICE detainees in Minnesota had tested positive for the virus. 

A DWI arrest leads to a long detention

ICE detained Tulio Portillo, 30, in August after he was arrested for drinking and driving, his wife, Chelsea, said. After staying in jail for the night, ICE took Tulio into custody while he was waiting to get a car breathalyzer installed, she said. 

Romero explained that law enforcement treats Tulio differently solely because of his immigration status. 

“As a U.S. citizen, if I had too much to drink and were pulled over, I’d get taken to jail,” Romero  said. “I’d probably stay overnight, sober up, and then one of my friends or somebody in my family would bail me out for a couple hundred bucks. But for an undocumented person, they end up fighting for their lives in a COVID-infested jail, and family members like Chelsea are trying to figure out how to survive.” 

Tulio has filed for asylum and for his deportation order to be cancelled.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...