(CBS News) - An immigrant in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody died of coronavirus complications on Sunday while waiting to voluntarily depart to his native Guatemala, becoming the agency’s second detainee to die from the virus.
The 34-year-old immigrant, Santiago Baten-Oxlag, died at a hospital in Columbus, Georgia after being transferred there from the Stewart Detention Center, a privately operated prison near the state's border with Alabama, according to an ICE notification to Congress obtained by CBS News. Baten-Oxlag had been receiving care at the Columbus hospital since April 17.
The preliminary cause of the death, which was first reported by BuzzFeed News, is “complications related to COVID-19,” the notification said. ICE notified Baten-Oxlag’s family, the Guatemalan government, as well as the offices of inspector general and professional responsibility within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
It is unclear if Baten-Oxlag had any underlying medical conditions. ICE officials did not respond to a request to comment on his death.
Baten-Oxlag is the second known immigrant to die of COVID-19 while in ICE custody. Earlier this month, Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejía, an immigrant from El Salvador who had lived in the U.S. since the 1980s, died of coronavirus complications at a San Diego-area hospital after being transferred there from a for-profit prison ICE uses to detain hundreds of detainees in southern California.
More than 1,200 immigrants have tested positive for coronavirus while in ICE custody, according to the agency. Roughly 50% of the 2,394 detainees ICE has screened for the virus so far have tested positive. As of last week, the agency was holding more 26,000 people in its sprawling network of local jails and private prisons, which form the largest immigration detention system in the world.
As coronavirus cases among detained immigrants have continued to grow, advocates and Democratic lawmakers have implored ICE to dramatically reduce its nationwide detainee population. They say detained immigrants can’t adequately protect themselves from the contagion while in a congregate environment.
ICE has released more than 900 immigrants it deemed to be at heightened risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19 because of their health issues or age. As a result of federal court rulings prompted by dozens of lawsuits filed by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the agency has also been required to release more than 370 detainees.
But advocates have criticized the agency for continuing to detain certain immigrants with medical conditions and others who don't pose a threat to the public. These detainees include more than 4,600 asylum-seekers who have demonstrated a credible fear of being persecuted or tortured in their home countries.
According to the congressional notification, ICE arrested Baten-Oxlag in early March following a conviction for driving under the influence. The agency detains undocumented immigrants and green card holders the government seeks to deport — not to fulfill a criminal sentence by a judge.
An immigration judge allowed Baten-Oxlag to voluntarily leave the U.S. on March 26, according to the notification. Voluntary departure has fewer consequences than a formal deportation and not every immigrant is eligible for the relief.