Aldo Camacho-Lopez began feeling sick and feverish in late March, as immigration authorities at the Pike County Correctional Facility prepared to deport him to Mexico.

He quickly became too ill to go. He tested positive for COVID-19 on April 2, and on Sunday night, he was admitted to Wayne Memorial Hospital in Honesdale.

Camacho-Lopez, 31, said he’s not the only one in danger at the Northeast Pennsylvania migrant detention center. After he developed coronavirus symptoms but before he tested positive, he said, he was allowed to spend a couple of hours a day in a yard with 40 other men, potentially exposing them to a disease that has killed 338 people statewide and more than 16,000 across the nation.

At Pike, at least 10 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, including Camacho-Lopez’s cellmate, three other detainees, and five correctional officers.

“I’m not going to be surprised when that number spikes significantly,” said immigration lawyer Christopher Casazza, of the Philadelphia firm of Solow, Isbell, & Palladino, who represented Camacho-Lopez to demand better medical treatment.

For weeks, as the pandemic has unfolded case by case, death by death, advocates have warned that the 40,000 migrants in the nation’s detention centers live in particular danger. Holding masses of people in close quarters creates serious health risks, they say, not only for detainees but for staff members and their families, and even for hospital doctors and nurses.

The system-wide number of cases among detainees ticks upward daily, standing now at 50. In Pennsylvania, ICE holds detainees in Clinton, York, and Berks Counties and at the Pike prison, which currently confines about 250 migrants as well as state inmates.

The story of Camacho-Lopez’s illness, outlined in court filings and interviews with family members, lays bare how one detention center is responding to a fast-moving crisis — and how detainees fear that response isn’t enough to keep them safe.

“We are very worried for him,” said Camacho-Lopez’s niece Jocelyn Camacho, 20.

Last Friday, the day after Camacho-Lopez tested positive, Casazza sought a federal court order to free him, calling the medical treatment at Pike life-threatening — an argument that became moot when his client was hospitalized.

Four days later, Chief U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner of the Middle District of Pennsylvania rejected claims of poor care, noting that Camacho-Lopez bore the burden of proving jailers were “deliberately indifferent” to his needs and ruling he was “regularly monitored and appropriately treated.”

ICE Philadelphia Field Office officials, who oversee Pike, declined to comment on Camacho-Lopez’s case. But in court documents, ICE and jail authorities assert that far from endangering people, “the government has taken steps to protect Camacho-Lopez’s safety and the safety of other detainees.”

This photo shows the immigrant detention center at the York County Prison, one of four sites where ICE holds detainees in Pennsylvania.
Jose F. Moreno / File Photograph
This photo shows the immigrant detention center at the York County Prison, one of four sites where ICE holds detainees in Pennsylvania.

Two medical experts for the Department of Homeland Security say officials should consider releasing all detainees who pose no public risk. On Wednesday, Amnesty International warned of a “looming COVID-19 disaster” among the nation’s detained migrants, most of whom have no criminal background.

“COVID-19 is spreading, and not nearly enough is being done to combat it,” U.S. District Judge John Jones III wrote Tuesday in an order to free 22 Pennsylvania detainees with chronic health conditions. “We cannot allow [the plaintiffs] to bear the consequences of ICE’s inaction.”

He and other judges around the country have released dozens of migrants who could be at greater risk because of underlying health issues. But the courts have generally refrained from ordering the full evacuations that advocates say will prevent scores of potential new infections.

“Our phone rings constantly,” said Bridget Cambria, executive director of ALDEA–the People’s Justice Center in Reading. “They’re terrified.”

Camacho-Lopez lived in Scranton, running a pizza shop, and is the father of six children, five of them American citizens by birth. Those include twins with his fianceé, Nelly Soberanes, 28, who became frightened when she could hear Camacho-Lopez fighting for air in a call from Pike.

“I told him, ‘Yell that you can’t breathe,’ they can’t let you die,” Soberanes said. “He said, 'They just tell me I’ll be fine.’ ”

Bridget Cambria, attorney and director of ALDEA, appears here outside her office in Reading, Pa. Detainees have been phoning the office, afraid of being exposed to the coronavirus in the close quarters of migrant detention centers.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Bridget Cambria, attorney and director of ALDEA, appears here outside her office in Reading, Pa. Detainees have been phoning the office, afraid of being exposed to the coronavirus in the close quarters of migrant detention centers.

Neither she nor Casazza knew his current condition.

Camacho-Lopez said he first entered the United States in June 2004. Between then and now, he pleaded guilty to drunken driving in Lackawanna County, was arrested by Scranton police for assault and harassment, and twice was deported to Mexico.

On March 13, after again being caught in the U.S., Camacho-Lopez was scheduled for his third deportation, beginning with a March 30 transfer from Pike County to Louisiana.

He showed symptoms of the virus as early as March 25, his legal filing said, but still was allowed contact with prisoners and staff. It’s unclear if Camacho-Lopez was ever seen by a doctor at Pike; ICE legal papers refer only to “medical personnel” and a “medical provider.”

“After I exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 but prior to testing positive,” Camacho-Lopez wrote, “I was in a cell with four other individuals, and was let out of my cell for a couple hours a day to play basketball. I would guess I was in contact with 40-plus other people during that time.”

His account of his treatment at Pike diverges with that of ICE and jail authorities on most every important point.

Camacho-Lopez said he was neither placed in medical isolation nor given a protective mask — allegations denied by ICE. He said he was seen by a nurse in the mornings, who took his temperature and gave him a small white pill. He had trouble breathing, achy muscles and bones, and lethargy.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls those “emergency warning signs” that require immediate medical attention. ICE says Camacho-Lopez got that.

Christopher George, ICE assistant field office director in Philadelphia, said he spoke with Pike staff, including Nicole Rattiner, the health-services administrator of Primecare Medical, a contractor at Pike.

She told George that on March 28, Camacho-Lopez was flushed and hot, with a temperature of 100.8 degrees. He and his cellmate were issued surgical masks and gloves, and both were moved into a quarantine dorm where patients are assessed several times a day.

Three days later, Camacho-Lopez’s temperature had climbed to 102.4, and he reported achiness and shortness of breath. A rapid flu test was negative, so a COVID-19 test was administered.

When the results came back positive on April 2, ICE said, Camacho-Lopez was prescribed a daily multivitamin and Gatorade three times a day — which shocked lawyer Casazza.

“There’s nothing in the CDC guidelines,” he said, “about giving someone a sugary sports drink and a vitamin.”

By last Friday, Camacho-Lopez wrote, his “lungs hurt.” He had chest, muscle and bone pain, and was “having a lot of trouble breathing.”

George said when he spoke to medical personnel the next morning, Camacho-Lopez remained in an isolation dorm and showed no symptoms or signs of distress. He still had a fever and was being given Tylenol.

By then, George reported, multiple steps had been taken: Pike had instituted a modified lockdown, restricting movement throughout the jail. Detainees received meals in their cells, and staffers were now required to wear protective masks. Detainees were having their temperatures taken every day.

Camacho-Lopez was scheduled to see a medical provider on Tuesday. By then, he was already hospitalized.