By Gaige Davila
A Ugandan man detained in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Port Isabel Detention Center (PIDC) is pleading for his life after receiving an imminent deportation order.
Steven Tendo, 36, has been detained at Port Isabel Detention Center (PIDC) since December 2018, after presenting himself at the U.S. Port of Entry in Brownsville from Matamoros seeking asylum. Since then, Steven has been attempting to be released from the detention center, with help from his attorneys.
On June 16, Tendo’s motion for stay was denied by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, after which ICE sent a final order of deportation letter to Steven, already informing the Ugandan government and issuing his travel documents, Steven told the PRESS in a message.
In the final order of removal, Steven is set to be deported to Uganda in early July, as reported by Erin Sheridan in the “People Live Here” multimedia reporting project.
The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) has confirmed it will adjudicate a motion for a stay filed by Tendo’s attorneys, Cathy Potter, one of the attorneys, told the PRESS. In The Fifth Circuit Court, Steven’s attorneys have filed a petition to review new evidence within the BIA case, so as to reopen his appeal.
A habeas corpus petition filed by Potter is still active in the Southern District Court of Texas, but a Supreme Court ruling on June 25, saying asylum seekers rejected in court can no longer contest the denial, may make the filling moot.
Tendo left Uganda after being persecuted for organizing voter registration and human rights advocacy through his ministry, ELOI Ministries, by Uganda’s government. Tendo said he’s been tortured severely, suffering two finger amputations, burned with melting plastic and whipped in a “python snake” room. Tendo said his brother and uncle have been murdered in retaliation for his organizing, along with his sister being beaten by Ugandan security forces who believed she was hiding Steven.
Tendo said he experienced imprisonment in his home country as well.
“I have been in prisons over flimsy and (staged) charges in Uganda, character assassinated over the internet and publication media and so on,” Tendo told the PRESS over the phone from PIDC. “I find it so disturbing for ICE to get in touch with my enemies and side with them against my life.”
A Ugandan official has said once Steven arrives in Uganda, he will be arrested and killed by security officers, the Angry Tias and Abuelas of the RGV said in the same Facebook post.
Tendo is diabetic, developing cataracts in both of his eyes from inadequate medical care at PIDC. Tendo was taken to Gulf Coast Eye Institute in Harlingen, where doctors told him he needed surgery. But PIDC’s medical director denied Steven receiving the surgery, Tendo said, telling him he needed to have the condition “reviewed” in a year. When COVID-19 cases were confirmed at PIDC, the medical director denied any outpatient care for detainees there, Tendo said, including his’s eye surgery.
As of June 23, ICE has confirmed 61 COVID-19 cases inside PIDC, with 23 of the cases active. Cameron County Public Health department said 7 of these cases are PIDC employees, with 53 cases being detainees. Cameron County Public Health confirms 60 cases of COVID-19 at PIDC, one less than ICE’s official count.
Tendo told the PRESS that detainees and staff are contracting secondary infections of COVID-19, after already contracting the virus and recovering previously. ICE declined to comment on whether there were secondary infections at PIDC or other ICE facilities, referring to ICE’s COVID-19 resource guide in response to the PRESS’ questions.
“If you’re an asylum seeker who’s in danger, you’re not supposed to get sent back to your country to wait,” Jennifer Harbury, a member of Angry Tias and Abuelas of the RGV and a civil rights lawyer, said to the PRESS on a phone call. “Denying a stay of removal makes sense in a lot of emergency cases but not in life or death cases involving asylum and torture.”
Harbury filed a complaint against the PIDC with the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) on June 8, citing instances of inadequate medical care administered to Steven, not providing him with diabetic meals and not separating him from other detainees possibly infected with COVID-19, because of Steven’s susceptibility to contracting the virus.
The OIG has not responded to Harbury’s complaint.
Steven has told the PRESS several times that most of the dorms inside the PIDC are under quarantine and that detainees are avoiding being tested for COVID-19, fearing they will be isolated and not receive medical care at all.
ICE declined to comment on Tendo’s imminent deportation notice and have previously declined commenting on the complaint filed on Tendo’s behalf with the OIG. The OIG has not responded to the PRESS’ request for comment.
Tendo told the PRESS that he was initially fearful of contracting COVID-19 inside the detention center, but is now fearing his deportation more.
“I’d rather die in that manner than go back to Uganda,” Tendo said. “I will not step on that plane alive.”