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This 2017 file photograph shows the entrance to the GEO Group's immigrant detention facility in Aurora. The facility, recently criticized for viral outbreaks, is primarily housing asylum seekers flown in from the border with Mexico. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Most of the bright-blue bunk beds lined up in rows were empty by midday Monday, though a few detainees were still trying to sleep under bright lights and matching blankets. Others — all flown to Colorado from the Mexican border — read newspapers or chatted at small tables in their dormitory at the immigration detention center in Aurora.

An orange health alert posted on the window of the dorm spelled out the reason the 53 men inside are under quarantine: mumps and varicella, or chicken pox.

They are among 357 detainees at the center in six different dorms or pods in quarantine for 20 to 25 days because of exposure to the illnesses. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials call the illnesses “isolated cases” and not an outbreak, but nonprofit advocacy groups and politicians are intensifying their calls for transparency and improved health standards at the center.

Eight people have been confirmed to have mumps and six have been confirmed to have chicken pox, according to Tri-County Health Department. An additional five detainees are suspected to have mumps and are under evaluation.

The cases of mumps are directly related to the center’s expansion last month to take people seeking asylum at the Mexican border, immigration officials said Monday during a rare media tour of the detention center.

About 800 of the immigration center’s 1,300 total detainees are men and women who arrive once or twice a week on flights direct from the Mexican border. In January, the center opened a 432-bed annex to house the influx of detainees, who in many cases are walking up to border patrol agents and asking for asylum because they fear for their lives, usually due to gang violence at home.

The expansion into the annex — which outraged politicians from the Aurora City Council all the way to Congress, in part because it was not publicly announced — led to dramatic change in the center’s demographics.

Typically, 94 percent of the detainees at the center are people living in the United States illegally who had convictions for crimes or had posted bond on charges ranging from driving under the influence to homicide. They include those picked up their homes, their workplaces or from jails by Colorado-based immigration officials. Many already have served prison or jail time and are captured by federal immigration agents for deportation.

“What we target in Colorado are criminals,” said Mike Anderson, assistant field office director for ICE’s enforcement and removal operations in Colorado.

Now, though, just 34 percent of the detainees are so-called “criminal aliens.”

Most detainees now housed in Aurora came direct from the border. Each gets a hearing to determine whether they are allowed to stay in the United States or are deported. “If an immigration judge says so, welcome to this country,” said John Fabbricatore, acting field office director in Denver for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The annex, a building adjacent to the main detention center that was not in use, serves as a “relief valve” for immigration detention facilities on the border, officials said. “The number that are actually presenting themselves at the border is higher than it’s ever been,” Anderson said.

The influx of detainees from the border means immigration agents are spending less time picking up people living in Colorado illegally with criminal convictions, Fabbricatore said. “We are still getting out and making criminal arrests,” he said, but he noted agents are focusing on people convicted of the most serious crimes.

The hundreds of border detainees include people who were living in camps for weeks or months and who are from countries without vaccination for mumps, immigration officials said. Aurora isn’t the only detention center receiving the border detainees, or the only center dealing with mumps, officials said.

Detainees are tested for the illnesses at the border, but in several cases, they tested negative because the disease was in the incubation period. Fever and rash appeared later, after they were moved to Aurora.

At least one detainee confirmed to have mumps was released from the center in recent weeks, immigration officials said. An unknown number of others have been released to the public from quarantine.

“We can’t hold them for quarantine — we can’t do it,” Fabbricatore said, acknowledging he is concerned about the public health risk. Instead, detainees released from detention on a judge’s orders after exposure to one of the illnesses are sent with a mask, medication and written advice on when to seek medical care.

The center is required to notify the state health department, as well as the local Tri-County Health Department, about every case of mumps or chicken pox within 24 hours. The first cases of chicken pox were reported in October, while mumps cases appeared only after the detention center opened its annex and took detainees from the border.

Health officials from the state and Tri-County visited the detention center last week to help contain the spread of the diseases. Under recently enacted policy, all detainees will receive a mumps vaccination upon arrival. Staff is also receiving vaccinations.  

The media was invited to tour the facility after increasing protests about health conditions from nonprofits that advocate for detainees. U.S. Rep. Jason Crow showed up unannounced at the detention center in February and was denied entry. Crow, a Democrat who started his term in January, also asked to join the media tour and was denied.

Fabbricatore said Crow is welcome to call ahead and schedule a tour but that it wasn’t appropriate to add a congressman, who has a higher security clearance than reporters, to the media tour. He suggested Crow ask to visit on a day when a flight from the border is arriving.

Crow blasted the immigration agency again Monday in a news release. “Despite being faced with multiple reports of poor conditions and disease outbreaks, ICE has repeatedly blocked our office from performing basic congressional oversight,” he said. “This disturbing pattern raises the obvious question: Why is ICE delaying oversight of this facility?”

Meanwhile, ICE officials and representatives of The GEO Group, the company contracted to run the center, led reporters through a series of locked doors and down bare, concrete-brick hallways to view the center’s law library, kitchen, pods and dormitories. The media was restricted from bringing recording devices, cameras and cell phones, and was prohibited from interviewing any detainees.

“There is no smell of fresh paint on the walls,” said Alethea Smock, an ICE public affairs officer who arranged the tour and reassured reporters the center looked as it does on any typical day. “This is how we operate every day. We didn’t want it to be a show.”

The majority of detainees — whose jumpsuit colors represent one of four security levels — live in prison-style pods, with a row of cells on the main floor and another row on an upper level. Each pod holds up to 80 people and has three televisions, games, phones detainees can use to call collect, and phones with free speed dial to various consulates.

The center has just one doctor, as well as two physicians’ assistants, two psychiatrists, one psychologist and more than 25 nurses. It hired or contracted with six additional nurses and one psychologist after opening the 432-bed annex last month.

The center also has eight negative-pressure rooms — which allow air to flow in but not out — to isolate detainees confirmed to have mumps or chicken pox.

Ana Rodriguez, a community organizer with Colorado People’s Alliance, said the nonprofit has received multiple reports from detainees inside the center whose requests for medical attention were ignored. One detainee lost his eyesight because he was denied surgery and instead given steroids, Rodriguez said, while another claims center officials have not acted sufficiently to stop the spread of mumps and chicken pox.

In June, the American Immigration Council and the American Immigration Lawyers Association filed a public complaint accusing the Aurora center of failing to provide medical and mental health care. The complaint filed with several federal agencies alleged multiple instances of poor treatment, including the 2017 death of a detainee from a heart attack two weeks after he was picked up by ICE agents.

An ongoing federal class-action lawsuit alleges detainees at the center were forced to work for $1 per day.

“We have found a really, really sad state of affairs,” said Rodriguez, whose group was part of a protest over the chicken pox quarantine in October. “They have been dealing with constant outbreaks since late last year.”

The quarantines are preventing detainees from going to court and visiting relatives in person, she said. “They could die in there and nobody would really care about them.”

Jennifer Brown

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...