James Hill wanted to go home to Canada. His brother-in-law made renovations in his Toronto home so Hill could isolate for the mandated two weeks.
Fresh clothes and a built-from-scratch backyard space to enjoy the sun awaited him.
After serving nearly 14 years in a U.S. prison for health care fraud and drug distribution, the 72-year-old was set to fly home and see his family last month.
The judge signed the deportation removal order May 12. Hill’s flight home after spending three months in Farmville’s immigration detention center was scheduled for July 9.
But he never boarded the plane.
He struggled to breathe and developed a fever after a July 1 incident that resulted in ICE agents deploying chemical agents. By July 10, at least 268 detainees had tested positive for COVID-19. The next day, Hill was hospitalized and became part of the number that has made Farmville the site of the country’s largest coronavirus outbreak in an immigration detention facility.
Hill died at Lynchburg General Hospital on Wednesday night, nearly 50 miles outside the facility and 600 miles from Toronto.
“It is a story that shouldn’t have happened,” said Doug Hunt, Hill’s nephew. “This wasn’t even a choice he made. He didn’t go to a party or something like that. He begged them to protect him because he was older ... and they ignored him.”
Hill is the first COVID-19-related death in an immigration detention center in Virginia and the fourth in the country, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement website. In a statement, the agency said fatalities in ICE custody “are exceedingly rare and occur at a fraction of the national average for the U.S. detained population.”
As of Aug. 6, there were 298 detainees at the Farmville center — owned by Immigration Centers of America — and 290 total detainees at one point had tested positive. Currently, there are 225 confirmed cases being monitored at the facility, according to ICE.
Amber Qureshi, a legal fellow with the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, said detainees she speaks to, all of whom are recovering from the coronavirus, said they’d all been afraid of an outbreak. Detainees now worry that they’ll never go home if they’re sent to a hospital, she said. Qureshi added that some report having passed out from symptoms and say dorms are filled with feverish people coughing. Other people detained have told Qureshi they’d rather be deported than die in Farmville’s detention center.
Hunt, Hill’s nephew, recalled Hill saying the facility’s conditions were worse than prison.
“This is exactly what we’ve been trying to prevent,” said Luis Oyola, community organizer for the Legal Aid Justice Center. “And since before there was a single confirmed case in Farmville. We put this on ICE. We put this on [Immigration Centers of America], and we put this on the state government for sitting and watching it all unfold and not taking decisive action.”
Alena Yarmosky, spokeswoman for Gov. Ralph Northam, said in a statement that the state isn’t able to enter the detention center without permission from the facility but that the governor has “pushed for months to gain access for increased testing and disease management.”
The statement also said the Virginia Department of Health has repeatedly tried to assist with testing but was denied.
“Only last week, after the Governor went directly to the President for assistance, did the CDC agree to intervene for widespread testing,” Yarmosky said. “Everyone deserves protection from this virus, no matter their immigration status.”
In a statement Friday, Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, called on Northam to shut down the immigrant detention center in Farmville, saying that “the worst fears of advocates and the families of those detained have been realized.”
The statement refers to more than five letters written since March expressing concern about the facility’s conditions and health risks.
“I’m beyond outraged,” Samirah said. “We must continue fighting to release everyone currently held at ICA-Farmville. As a health care professional, I know that this private facility is in clear violation of the health and safety standards of the Commonwealth.”
Lawyers and immigration advocates said the surge in cases occurred after ICE transferred detainees from Arizona and Florida — COVID-19 hot spots — without quarantining. Of the 74 detainees transferred, 51 tested positive for COVID-19.
On July 22, the National Immigration Project and the Legal Aid Justice Center filed a lawsuit against ICE calling the outbreak at ICA-Farmville a “human rights violation.”
In a statement then, Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of the immigrant advocacy program at the Legal Aid Justice Center, called the outbreak preventable.
“They created a protocol to try to keep COVID-19 out of Farmville,” he said. “And then they proceeded to ignore it when it mattered most.”
On Friday, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who last week along with Sen. Kaine, D-Va., urged the Trump administration to contain the outbreak and dispatch health experts to Farmville, said the situation could have been avoided if the administration — ICE, the Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — listened to their calls to stop transfers.
Warner again called on the federal government to step in and “protect the Farmville community to help prevent the possibility of another tragedy.”
Diana Tan, an Embassy of Canada spokeswoman, said Canadian officials are in contact with local authorities to gather additional information and assist Hill’s family.
ICE spokeswoman Kaitlyn Pote told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the facility “has ramped up its efforts to protect and care for detainees in its custody by providing face masks, procuring additional handwashing stations and, most recently, administering comprehensive testing of all detainees.”
The agency added that medical checks and temperature screenings are done twice a day.
Testing was offered to all detainees from July 1 to 3 and out of 22,000 detainees across the U.S., there are currently 941 positive cases. Almost 4,000 nationwide, at one point, tested positive.
For his uncle, those efforts came too late, Hunt said. Now Hill’s grieving family is left to figure out how to bring his body home for one last goodbye.
Staff writer Frank Green contributed to this report.