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Man Describes His Experience In ICE Facility Amid Pandemic

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Nicolas Morales is a 37-year-old father and a mechanic who lives with his wife and son in New Jersey, where he had his own business. He came to the United States when he was a teenager from Mexico. But last November, Nicolas Morales was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as an undocumented immigrant. Until recently, he was held at the Elizabeth Detention Facility in Elizabeth, N.J., where he says conditions were cramped and congested.

Nicolas Morales is now home and is appealing his deportation order. He's written about his experience in detention during the pandemic for the Los Angeles Times and joins us now. Mr. Morales, thanks so much for being with us.

NICOLAS MORALES: No problem.

SIMON: You were in the detention center when the coronavirus began to move around the United States. What were you told about it? What did you hear?

MORALES: Well, you know, looking at the news and seeing all those deaths and see all those numbers going up in epicenter in New York, very close to New Jersey, I was feeling, like, a lot of tension with a lot of stress, thinking about, you know, any time can start the people dying inside detention, you know?

SIMON: I have to ask. Did you have access to soap and water, access to antibacterial hand-washes, social distancing, masks, any of the stuff the rest of the country's been doing?

MORALES: Yeah, very poor sanitation. No social distance in a room of, like, around 40 people. And the beds are, like, maybe about 2, 3 feet of distance.

SIMON: Yeah. No hand sanitizer?

MORALES: Yeah, no. No hand sanitizer.

SIMON: Any masks?

MORALES: No. No masks. No gloves.

SIMON: So I gather that you and a few other people raised concerns about what was going on and not having what we would all recognize as appropriate safety measures for your health. How did officers there respond?

MORALES: Well, the officers, they try not to, you know, give us information and try to say that everything's fine, you know, that we are safer in there than outside.

SIMON: I gather some of you went on a hunger strike.

MORALES: Yes, you know, because we're trying to put some pressure on ICE. We got ICE coming in to talk to us. They're trying to scare us. They're trying to say, like, if you keep doing that, you're going to have to move close to the border of Canada. You'll be away from your lawyer. You'll be away from your family.

SIMON: ICE released a statement to us where they said in part, and I'm going to read their wording here, all ICE detainees receive access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care. Did you have access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care?

MORALES: Yes, we got a daily sick call at 7 or 8 o'clock in the morning. But, like, an emergency, sometimes they don't believe you. They don't believe that you are sick. They just say, oh, you looking fine.

SIMON: Why were you undocumented after all these years?

MORALES: I came in 1999 when I was a, like, you know, teenager, and I have my family here. I never have the opportunities to do that. And I was afraid to not qualify. I was short on money, too. I didn't come in here with a visa. I was coming - I came here, you know, by jumping the border.

SIMON: Mr. Morales, why did you decide to speak out about your experience? Must be some concerns about that because a judge is going to be reviewing your deportation order.

MORALES: A lot of people need to know what's going on. They say that they provide this, they provide that, and there's not. I was in there, and I live it. I know what's going on, and so got to make sure somebody do something, you know?

SIMON: Mr. Morales, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MORALES: You're welcome.

SIMON: In a follow-up statement to NPR, ICE gave us more specifics, saying, quote, "detainees at Elizabeth have access to soap and water for sanitary purposes and are encouraged proper hygiene, social distancing and constant hand-washing." They also told us this - quote, "alcohol-based products, like those found in hand sanitizers, are not allowed in the detention facility. Overcrowding has not been a problem at the facility, which can house 300 detainees. Current population is 114."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.