Ex-attorney of Otay ICE detainee who died after contracting COVID-19 heartbroken

Posted at 5:35 PM, May 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-07 20:54:54-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Outrage is growing after an ICE detainee in Otay Mesa became the first in U.S. custody to die of coronavirus. On Thursday, 10News spoke to the detainee's former attorney who says his family is heartbroken.

As of Thursday, 66 U.S. Marshal Service inmates and 140 detainees at the Otay Mesa Detention Center have contracted the coronavirus, according to federal authorities.

“He called his sister crying that he wanted to get out because he was afraid to die,” says immigration attorney Joan Del Valle. She’s arranging the funeral for Carlos Escobar-Mejia and says the family of the 57-year-old Salvadoran detainee is devastated following his death this Wednesday at a local hospital after he tested positive for COVID-19.

“I can't imagine how hard [it was] for him to be in the final days of this world, alone,” she adds.

She had represented him until January and says he'd come to the U.S. illegally and had a criminal history, adding, “He was a person that, yeah, committed mistakes in the past but he didn't deserve to die this way. This was completely preventable.”

For more than three months he'd been locked up at ICE’s Otay Mesa facility which is operated by contractor CoreCivic. It’s come under fire in recent weeks for allegations of poor health conditions inside and a rapidly growing number of detainees who are testing positive for the virus.

Del Valle says Escobar-Mejia was a diabetic with a leg amputation, making him medically vulnerable. “The Department of Homeland Security has a responsibility to verify [the people] who are at risk and avoid this,” she adds.

Immigrant rights' groups have been calling for the release of the detainees from the facility, citing the deadly threat of the spread of COVID-19.

Below is a full statement from CoreCivic.

“We are deeply saddened to report that a detainee who had been hospitalized from our Otay Mesa Detention Center has passed away Wednesday morning. The individual had been transported to a nearby hospital on April 24 due to symptoms of COVID-19.

We had been in close contact with our government partner, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), about the health of the detainee and immediately notified them of the individual’s passing. The exact cause of death is pending an official determination. We extend our heartfelt sympathy to this individual’s loved ones.

In deference to our government partners, all further inquiries should be directed to ICE. For more information about our COVID-19 response, please visit: [].”

Below is a full statement from ICE.

“A 57-year-old Salvadoran man in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody at Otay Mesa Detention Center died yesterday morning at an area hospital where he was being treated for COVID-19.

On May 6, Carlos Escobar-Mejia was pronounced dead at 2:15 a.m. local time by medical professionals at the Paradise Valley Hospital in National City, California, where he had been hospitalized since April 24, after exhibiting COVID-19 related symptoms. A COVID-19 test was administered April 24 by ICE Health Services Corp and came back positive that same day. Hospital admissions was notified of the positive test results the day he was hospitalized. The preliminary cause of death was listed as undetermined.

Consistent with the agency’s protocols, the appropriate agencies have been notified about the death, including the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG), and the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). Additionally, ICE has notified the Salvadoran consulate and Escobar-Mejia’s next of kin.

Escobar-Mejia entered ICE custody Jan. 10, following his arrest by U. S. Border Patrol near Campo, California, and was transferred to ICE custody at Otay Mesa Detention Center (OMDC) due to pending removal proceedings. A medical screening conducted by IHSC at OMDC Jan. 11 indicated Mr. Escobar-Mejia had hypertension. He also self-identified as having diabetes.

On Jan. 13, ICE filed a motion for change of venue from Los Angeles to San Diego, California. An immigration judge denied him bond April 15 after deeming him a flight risk.

Escobar-Mejia originally entered the U.S. without admission or parole in 1980. Previously, Escobar-Mejia had entered ICE custody in March 2012 following his arrest on local charges by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He was released on an immigration bond in June 2012. His criminal convictions include grand theft, possession of a controlled substance, receiving known stolen property and DUI.

ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases. Fatalities in ICE custody, statistically, are exceedingly rare and occur at a fraction of the national average for the U.S. detained population.

The agency’s comprehensive review will be conducted by ICE senior leadership, including Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) and the Office of the Principal Legal Advisor (OPLA).

ICE’s Health Service Corps (IHSC) ensures the provision of necessary medical care services as required by ICE Performance-Based National Detention Standards and based on the medical needs of the detainee. Comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment detainees arrive and throughout the entirety of their stay. All ICE detainees receive medical, dental and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility, a full health assessment within 14 days of entering ICE custody or arrival at a facility, and access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care. Pursuant to our commitment to the welfare of those in the agency’s custody, ICE annually spends more than $269 million on the spectrum of healthcare services provided to detainees.”