WILLMAR — Following a COVID-19 outbreak at the Kandiyohi County Jail, advocates are calling for the release of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees, many of whom have been infected or are under observation for the virus.

Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Holien counters that inmates are being taken care of and he doesn’t have the power to release inmates.

As of Friday, ICE is reporting that 20 detainees in the Kandiyohi County Jail are under isolation or monitoring for COVID-19 and 40 cases overall. The first reported COVID-19 cases for ICE detainees was Dec. 4, when eight detainees were under isolation of monitoring.

As of Dec. 22, Holien wrote that there were 23 active COVID-19 cases in the entire inmate population, with one staff member who tested positive.

Since May, advocates have been calling for the release of ICE detainees held in Minnesota detention facilities and condemning the counties of Carver, Freeborn, Kandiyohi, Nobles and Sherburne for entering into contracts with the Department of Homeland Security, the parent organization of ICE, to hold undocumented people set for deportation.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

In a letter sent by the Minnesota Sanctuary State Coalition to the sheriff's offices of those counties, 23 Minnesota religious leaders accused the sheriffs of profiting from those contracts and of putting the detainees' lives at risk due to the housing conditions of detention facilities during the pandemic.

According to a 2001 contract Kandiyohi County signed with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the precursor to ICE, the county receives a little over $75 a day for each detainee held.

Jails, by default, restrict movement and space of those inside and a November article signed by 10 medical and public health professionals also called for the release of ICE detainees, citing the potential health risks associated with close quarters and the virus.

How many ICE detainees are being held at the Kandiyohi County Jail at any time is unknown, Holien declined to answer that question, citing a contractual obligation with ICE.

However, according to the contract the county signed with INS, the jail must provide up to 138 beds for male detainees and 12 beds for female detainees.

“That is just unconscionable to us that people are being held in jail, many of whom have done absolutely nothing wrong, have committed no crime, have no criminal history or maybe they’ve committed some small kind of crime like a driving offense,” Pastor Daniel Romero of Lyndale United Church of Christ said. “These folks are being held in jail by the county sheriffs and the county board because of these immoral and inhuman contracts with ICE.”

Kandiyohi County Sheriff Holien wrote in an email that while the revenue from holding ICE detainees helps with expenditures, it is not profitable.

In 2019, overall expenditures from the jail were about $5.4 million, with revenues hitting a little over $2 million, of which about $1.5 million was from the county’s contract with ICE, according to Holien.

“That’s just unconscionable for any jail, no matter where it’s at, it’s completely immoral to be profiteering from the pain and suffering of immigrants. I cannot denounce that enough,” Romero said when he was told about how much Kandiyohi County makes from the ICE contract.

Romero cited concerns with the lack of transparency from county officials and that they hadn’t heard anything substantive from them regarding their May letter.

“We’re very afraid that the next tragedy is that we’re going to hear about a death due to COVID,” Romero said.

Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Holien
Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Holien
Holien wrote via email that he didn’t respond to the letter because there wasn’t a specific data request and he is not responsible for determining who is released, citing that he is fulfilling contractual obligations.

“Our oath and obligation is to ensure the safety and the protection of the communities we serve,” Holien wrote. “This group wants to use COVID-19 as a Trojan horse to advance their immigration policy and agenda. By doing so, this methodology takes away the legitimate discussions on immigration reform and is counterproductive. Boarding inmates and detainees is not a new practice, we board for ICE, Department of Corrections, as well other sheriff's offices.”

COVID-19 protocols

Romero said the recent COVID-19 outbreak is a direct result of Holien and his staff lacking the expertise to stop the spread of the virus.

“It’s very clear to us that (Holien) has no control over what’s going on there with respect to the spread of COVID-19,” Romero said.

In response to that criticism, Holien wrote that his jail and staff have worked with and closely follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the Minnesota Department of Health.

“I can assure you the health and safety of those entrusted in our care as well as staff is a top priority. We have a group of wonderful staff and (medical providers) who (have) proven they have the ability as well as expertise to control the spread of COVID-19 in the jail,” Holien wrote, citing a recent December inspection by the Minnesota Department of Corrections following a complaint about the medical practices of ICE detainees at his jail.

The inspector who wrote that document seemingly found no deficiencies in how the jail has been handling the medical treatment of ICE detainees or in the jail's response to the virus.

The inspector wrote that all ICE detainees are medically screened at intake and all inmates, regardless of immigration status, are quarantined for 14 days upon arrival.

Holien wrote that after those 14 days and a negative COVID-19 test, inmates can move into the general population. Inmates with symptoms receive a test right away while others receive a test after seven days.

ICE detainees receive a health assessment by a nurse and a full physical by a provider within 14 days, according to the inspector.

The inspector also found no medical complaints or grievances regarding medical treatment in the files he reviewed and that all legal requests for medical information had been granted.

Tulio Portillo

Tulio Portillo, 31, an ICE detainee in the Kandiyohi County Jail, told his wife, Chelsea, 29, that he’s scared he’s going to contract the virus.

He was picked up for his second charge of driving while impaired in September and is currently in the Kandiyohi County Jail awaiting deportation.

On Dec. 4, there were 8 ICE detainees under isolation or monitoring for COVID-19 in the Kandiyohi County Jail, according to ICE’s website that tracks detainee statistics.

That number eventually climbed to 22 ICE detainees two weeks later before hitting a low on Dec. 21 with two ICE detainees under isolation and monitoring.

As of Friday, 20 ICE detainees are under isolation or monitoring and 40 total confirmed cases, according to the tracker.

Portillo is also scared to tell anyone if he gets COVID-19 because inmates are being put into "solitary confinement" for 14 days when they do, according to Chelsea.

The December Department of Corrections report said that inmates are not placed in solitary confinement and the term should not be confused for medical isolation due to COVID-19.

Portillo told his wife that since the first week in December, the jail has been doing lockdowns for 24 hours a day and that staff doesn’t seem concerned with their medical safety as he’s had contact with people that later tested positive for COVID-19.

Chelsea also questioned whether or not people were wearing masks, though Portillo told her everyone is now wearing masks.

When she visited him prior to the outbreak, he was brought out without a mask, she said.

“So I don’t know how often people are even wearing the masks there,” Chelsea said.

“All inmates receive masks upon arrival to our facility. There has been a long-standing order for all staff to be wearing masks during any inmate interaction,” Holien wrote. “Currently, masks are mandatory at all times in the secure area of the jail, to be removed during meal time. Staff is encouraging inmates to wear them, and social distance. Staff are required to have full personal protection equipment in the units that have active cases.”

Portillo also claims that jail staff aren’t treating detainees well and are often racist.

“Our staff understands many detainees have the same common values as ourselves (and) are not expecting any of them to defend their humanity, but empathize with their situation,” Holien wrote in response to that claim. “Fear is an underlying motivator, when a person feels all other options are exhausted they will resort to false claims and name calling.”

The criminal case against Portillo is pending while ICE moves forward with his deportation.

His lawyer, Magdalena Metelska, said he has two different defenses from deportation: cancellation of removal for non-permanent residents or asylum withholding of removal, including the protection under the torture convention.

For cancellation, Portillo would have to prove that he’s been physically and continuously present in the U.S. for at least 10 years, he hasn’t been convicted of any disqualifying crimes, has either a spouse or a child that is a U.S. citizen and that his deportation would place an extremely unusual hardship on that relative.

For asylum, Portillo would have to show that he’ll be persecuted or has been persecuted on the basis of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or as a particular subject group, according to Metelska. For asylum, people generally have to apply within the first year of entry to the U.S.

If approved for the cancellation of removal, Portillo will essentially be granted a green card. If he is granted asylum, he won’t become a resident but he could then apply for residency a year after the order is granted.

A judge recently denied his immigration case. Portillo is looking into other options, including an appeal and/or a waiver or processing at a consulate following his deportation, according to Metelska.

An immigration lawyer for about 10 years, Metelska said often prosecutors will drop lesser criminal charges in favor of letting ICE deport the individual.

“The prosecutor doesn’t want to deal with that because they don’t care if these people get deported,” Metelska said. “Because (then) they don’t have to deal with the case.”

She said that when people are held by ICE, they are often not given a bond to be released, something afforded to people in criminal cases, and detainees will choose being deported over fighting the civil case against them and risk being detained longer.

“It’s just very sad,” Metelska said. “It continues to shock me that the immigration courts act as though they have more power than criminal courts. It’s a civil matter.”