A Canadian man who contracted the coronavirus while in the custody of U.S. immigration authorities has died, leaving his family shaken and looking for answers from governments on both sides of the border.
James Hill, 72, died at a Virginia hospital on Wednesday, four weeks after being transferred there from a nearby detention facility run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Hill, a former Louisiana doctor, had been in ICE custody for three months after serving more than 13 years in prison for health-care fraud and distributing a controlled substance.
A statement from ICE said a judge ordered his deportation in May.
His daughter said Hill was due to fly home to Toronto in early July, but ICE said he began to experience respiratory issues and was rushed to a local hospital on July 10.
He tested positive for COVID-19 the next day.
A sign for the town of Farmville is posted near the entrance to the road that leads to the ICE detention facility in Virginia. Hill’s daughter says her father had been concerned about contracting the coronavirus at the detention centre. (Julia Rendleman/Reuters)
In a statement to CBC News on Friday, Global Affairs Canada said it was aware that a Canadian citizen recently died in the United States and expressed its condolences to the family of the individual.
“Consular officials are in contact with local authorities to gather additional information and are providing consular assistance to the family of the Canadian citizen,” the statement said. It said the department could not disclose further information due to privacy reasons.
‘Worst place he had ever been’
A niece confirmed to CBC News that her uncle had passed away, saying the family is unhappy with the way things were handled.
Jessica Marostega Bob, who lives in the Guelph/Eramosa area approximately 100 kilometres west of Toronto, said the family is considering legal action.
Hill’s daughter, Verity Hill, told The Canadian Press her father described the Farmville Detention Centre as “the worst place he had ever been” and was becoming increasingly concerned he would catch the virus.
She said initially, her father was put in solitary confinement to protect his health but was removed for reasons that were not made clear to her family.
“I just can’t believe they didn’t isolate the sick people,” Hill said of ICE, accusing the agency of dragging its feet in the process of bringing her father home.
“I think they just think some people deserve to die.… That’s what crossed my mind.”
Nearly 300 COVID-19 cases at centre
According to ICE statistics, there have been 290 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Farmville facility as of Wednesday, with an estimated 350 to 400 detainees at the centre in total.
Spokesperson Kaitlyn Pote said the agency is following all government directions on COVID-19 and providing detainees with regular access to testing and medical treatment.
“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,” Pote said in a statement.
But Claudia Cubas of Washington, D.C.-based immigrant justice organization CAIR Coalition said Hill’s death highlights the unwillingness of American authorities to protect the health and safety of detainees.
“I know Mr. Hill had a criminal history, but he was a person,” Cubas said. “You cannot bring his life back. We cannot help him reunify with his family. His life is forever gone.”
Cubas argued the inability for immigration detainees to physically distance and the constant integration of new detainees into a centre’s population make the spread of coronavirus in detention centres like Farmville incredibly easy.
She also pointed to a recent ruling by the Canadian Federal Court against the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement — which prevented asylum seekers in the U.S. from seeking refuge in Canada — as further evidence that the U.S. is treating detainees’ lives as disposable.
Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a Toronto Liberal MP whose office was contacted by Hill’s family on July 15, said he is not sure whether anyone else in the Canadian government was aware of Hill’s situation.
He said he was regretfully not able to help the family, as the man had already contracted COVID-19 by the time they reached out to his office.