Onoval Perez-Montufar was the kind of detainee who always offered to share his meals, his cellmates say.
His niece described him as a caring father who could make “anyone in the room laugh.”
“Yes, he was generous, kind and funny, but he was also very scared,” one fellow detainee told the Miami Herald in a phone interview Monday.
“He was scared of dying. And look, his fear came true.” He paused and tried to control his tears: “Any of us can be next.”
Perez-Montufar, a Mexican national who was being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Glades County Detention Center in remote Moore Haven, just west of Lake Okeechobee, died July 11 of COVID-19. He was the first reported ICE detainee in Florida and the third in the country to die of the novel virus. He was 51.
The news of his death comes as coronavirus cases skyrocket inside ICE detention centers.
“He was complaining that he was having trouble breathing for a while,” said another detainee who at one point shared a bunk bed with Perez-Montufar. “It got to the point that they were forced to call the ambulance. He was taken out on a stretcher and we never saw him again.”
Because of the detainees’ immigration status and fear of retribution, the Miami Herald agreed to not reveal the names of those who requested anonymity.
ICE officials said Perez-Montufar had been in custody since June 15 and was in the process of being deported. He was pronounced dead at Lakeside Medical Center in Belle Glade, where he had been receiving treatment for almost two weeks.
Perez-Montufar’s death “is a prime example of the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic in jails and detention centers,” Rodney London, another fellow detainee at Glades, said in an open letter. “ICE’s deliberate inaction puts us all at a great risk. There is no vaccine for death, just like no vaccine for COVID-19 pandemic.”
London is one of several detainees who have remained in contact with what he called “some of the only advocates we have” — Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees, a South Florida immigration visitation organization. On Saturday, about a dozen members of the group carpooled to Glades County to hold a vigil for Perez-Montufar.
“His death was 100 percent preventable,” said the program’s executive director, Wendy King. She noted that detainees had reported Perez-Montufar having “weak lungs” and having been moved from an upstairs unit to a cell downstairs a few days before he was taken to the hospital.
“This is why we are calling on Glades County Sheriff David Hardin to sever the county’s contract with ICE to detain immigrants at the Glades County Jail before more people become sick or die,” King added.
The Glades County detention center, which doubles as a jail and contracts its services to house 300-plus detainees for ICE, is among the top nine facilities in the country with the largest number of COVID-19 cases. Its operator, the Glades County Sheriff’s Office, did not immediately respond to the Miami Herald’s request for comment Monday.
During the vigil there was a small candle-lighting ceremony and a march in which organizers delivered a letter to the sheriff. There were also a few speeches from immigration activists and a moment of silence. Advocates say officials “refused to accept the letter or even allow it to be placed in their suggestion box.”
“Onoval was somebody, somebody with the breath of life,” said Rebecca Talbot, who leads Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees’ visitation program at Glades. “Onoval was somebody, and he was killed by medical neglect at the hands of ICE.”
Perez-Montufar’s niece launched an online fundraiser with the hopes of raising enough money to fly his body back to Houston, where his family lives.
Advocates and detainees have been decrying dangerous conditions at the detention centers for months. During federal court hearings in an ongoing lawsuit seeking to release detainees from Glades and two other South Florida facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward, detainees have given U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Cooke live testimonies claiming medical neglect, lack of social distancing, retaliation and deteriorating conditions amid the global pandemic.
Over the weekend, Cooke assigned an independent fact-finder to inspect, investigate and determine whether ICE officials have violated her court orders aimed at preventing coronavirus cases behind bars.
As of Monday, Glades has tallied 136 coronavirus cases, while the Krome Processing Center in Miami-Dade has counted 91 and the Broward Transitional Center 35.
Citing the statistics in his open letter, London said there’s only one final order that determined Perez-Montufar’s fate.
“Death is a final order, just not the final order we want as detainees,” he wrote. “I would like to return to my family the same way I left them, please help.”