'I won't survive': Iranian scientist in US detention says Ice will let Covid-19 kill many

Sam Levin in Los Angeles
The Guardian

An Iranian scientist who was exonerated in a US sanctions trial but remains jailed by immigration authorities said the conditions in detention were filthy and overcrowded – and officials were doing little to prevent a deadly coronavirus outbreak.

Dr Sirous Asgari, a materials science and engineering professor, was acquitted in November on federal charges of stealing trade secrets related to his academic work with a university in Ohio. Although the US government lost its case on all charges, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) has kept him indefinitely detained since the trial. Now he’s speaking out about the “inhumane” treatment that could cost him his life.

Asgari, 59, told the Guardian that his Ice holding facility in Alexandria, Louisiana, had no basic cleaning practices in place and continued to bring in new detainees from across the country with no strategy to minimize the threat of Covid-19.

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In a phone call from the Alexandria Staging Facility (ASF), he said he believed the only safe option would be to shut down the facility due to the deplorable conditions. ASF is a 400-bed site where people are supposed to be detained for no more than 72 hours, typically a final stop before they are deported. But with Covid-19 travel restrictions and flight cancellations, Ice has been holding people for days on end in cramped bunkbeds alongside new arrivals who may have been exposed to the virus.

Asgari arrived at ASF on 10 March and has been seeking to voluntarily “self deport” to Iran. Ice has refused to let him fly home or be temporarily released with his family in the US. He alleged:

  • Detainees have no hand sanitizer, and the facility is not regularly cleaning bathrooms or sleeping areas. Asgari and a few other detainees have devised a schedule to try to clean surfaces themselves with the minimal soap available.

  • Detainees lack access to masks. For two weeks, ASF also refused to let Asgari wear his own protective mask, which he brought with him to the facility, and it has refused to supply one, despite his history of serious respiratory problems.

  • Detainees struggle to stay clean, and the facility has an awful stench. Because the facility is supposed to be temporary, there is no laundry available and detainees are stuck with the clothes they were wearing upon arrival, sometimes after long journeys.

  • There are no physical distancing guidelines at the facility. It appears no procedures or practices have changed in response to Covid-19 since Asgari’s arrival, even as Louisiana state and federal officials have urged people to isolate.

“The way Ice looks at these people is not like they are human beings, but are objects to get rid of,” said Asgari, a professor at the Sharif University of Technology, a public university in Tehran. “The way that they have been treating us is absolutely terrifying. I don’t think many people in the US know what is happening inside this black box.”

The situation is particularly worrying for Asgari, who is at risk of getting pneumonia if an infection like Covid-19 reaches his lungs. Given the conditions at ASF and treatment of detainees, if he were to get coronavirus there, “I don’t think I would survive,” he said.

Related: US surpasses China for highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the world

Advocates said Asgari’s case was especially troubling given that there was no legal justification or logic to his continued detention. He arrived in the US in 2017 with his wife and with valid passports and visas but upon arrival discovered he was being prosecuted by the US government for alleged violations of sanctions law.

Asgari, a father of three, has deep ties to the US. He completed his materials engineering PhD at Drexel University in Pennsylvania, and two of his children live in the US. But the FBI surveilled him and ultimately he was charged with fraud and trade secret theft relating to his work with a university in Ohio.

During a long trial, Asgari won his case and was acquitted in November of 2019, with a judge ruling the government’s evidence was insufficient. But because the US had revoked his original visa, he was then taken into Ice custody and has remained imprisoned since. He has asked Ice to let him buy his own ticket back to Iran, but he has not been able to go before an immigration judge and has not been granted bond to at least wait in the US with his daughter.

“It is so egregious. He didn’t do anything wrong,” said Mehrnoush Yazdanyar, an attorney and sanctions law expert who is helping Asgari’s family and facilitated the Guardian’s interview behind bars. “This is someone who is being unlawfully detained. Now if he gets corona, his chances of survival are slim to none.”

The stakes of his case escalated dramatically after he was taken to ASF on 10 March, just as the coronavirus was officially declared a global pandemic. The professor said the conditions at the facility were unbearable for long-term stays. New detainees are brought in at all hours, meaning it’s impossible to get sleep in his pod, where there can be up to 100 people in bunk beds in a single room. He puts toilet paper in his ears but has struggled to get any rest and now has a sleep disorder.

Asgari said there was not enough food. There is only one hot meal at 5pm and two smaller meals at breakfast and lunch, and no way to purchase any other food. There are six showers for his pod, and people have a hard time getting clean and can’t access clean clothes.

<span class="element-image__caption">Detainees struggled to stay clean in the Ice facility, Asgari said.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Gregory Bull/AP</span>
Detainees struggled to stay clean in the Ice facility, Asgari said. Photograph: Gregory Bull/AP

In other detention centers and jails, detainees often have official paid jobs and shifts cleaning the facilities. But at ASF, Asgari said, there was no system in place: “They say cleaning is everybody’s responsibility … They do sanitization once in a while.”

He said he had been trying to encourage others to help him clean on a schedule, and that sometimes they have Clorox in the bathroom, but that other times they have had to just use the foam soap from the showers.

One of his biggest concerns, however, is that so many people continue to be brought in and mixed with the detainees already there, violating the most basic standards of social distancing. “They are downplaying it in this facility, that it is safe … But the circulation of people under this coronavirus outbreak is absolutely nonsense … Coronavirus is a viral bomb waiting to blow up here.”

For reasons that are unclear, Ice transferred Asgari from ASF on Monday, took him out of state, then brought him back to the Louisiana facility two days later. When he returned, ASF finally let him use his own mask for the first time, Yazdanyar said.

An Ice spokesman did not respond to specific questions about Asgari’s case or allegations but said in an email that no one in custody in Louisiana had tested positive for Covid-19 and that detainees were “provided appropriate soap and cleaning supplies”.

He said Ice was conducting testing at Ice facilities and providing personal protective equipment in accordance with US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, and that all individuals were screened upon arrival.

Asgari said he was doing his best to help fellow detainees when he could: “I’m trying to comfort others.”

Related: First US immigration agency employees test positive for coronavirus

If Ice officials were forced to spend a few nights trying to sleep at the facility, “they would understand what an inhumane situation they have created,” he added.

ASF must close to save lives, he said: “Instead of shutting down, they are doing business as usual … The process is overruling human rights ”

Asgari said he struggled to comprehend the fact that he remained incarcerated months after his trial ended. “I am deeply hurt by the way I have been treated after I have been exonerated. Ice does not care about justice. Ice does not care about the constitution.”

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