SAN DIEGO — The asylum seeker from Cameroon exited the van that had taken him from federal immigration detention to a bus station in the California border city of Calexico. Volunteers were waiting to pick him up, drive him to a hotel and help him book a plane ticket to join a sister living in Michigan. But the man held up his hands instead.

"Stand back," he said, disclosing that he had been diagnosed with covid-19.

The next day, advocates for immigrants said, it happened again when Immigration and Customs Enforcement dropped off a Cuban man holding a sheet of paper that said he had just tested positive for the often-deadly virus.

In a border area that has suffered from ongoing covid-19 outbreaks, advocates for immigrants and ICE are at odds over the agency’s treatment of infected detainees. Advocates and county officials say they had no idea ICE was dropping detainees with covid off at the bus stop, while ICE says it is the agency’s protocol to notify local authorities ahead of time.

Democrats on March 14 blamed former president Donald Trump for failing to address migration at the southern U.S. border as crossings surged in recent weeks. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

While the advocates agree that detainees with diagnosed with covid-19 should be released from detention so they can seek better medical care, failing to coordinate those transfers with health officials and nonprofits is a danger to public health, they said.

“It’s reprehensible,” said Jules Kramer, chief of operations at the Minority Humanitarian Foundation, a nonprofit that aids migrants and refugees on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. “It’s a threat to public safety. It’s a threat to our asylum seekers. It’s a threat to the people on the ground helping. It’s absolutely unforgivable.”

ICE officials said in a statement that the medical staff at the Imperial Regional Detention Facility, where they were monitoring 12 active covid-19 cases as of late last week, tests people for the virus before they are released, and counsels them on federal health guidelines such as wearing personal protective equipment and quarantining.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody,” spokeswoman Paige Hughes said in a statement. “In these particular instances, ICE had no legal authority to continue detention for the individuals referenced.”

“In addition, the individual’s sponsor, should they have one, and the Imperial County public health officials are notified,” she added. The agency would not say who it notified.

Imperial County officials gave a different account, saying ICE did not notify them they were releasing people with covid-19.

“The unknown release of COVID positive nonresidents of the County is definitely a concern for the health of our community, but in recognizing that these individuals are in need of humanitarian aid, the County of Imperial took action,” Rebecca Terrazas-Baxter, the county’s intergovernmental relations director, said in a statement.

County officials picked up the men in Calexico and took them to quarantine at its Department of Social Services, she said. But she said the county has “limited capacity” and will need help from the federal government if they continue to release detainees with covid. “It is imperative for increased communication and support from the federal government,” she said.

A third covid-positive person was released in Imperial County by U.S. Customs and Border Protection earlier in the week, advocates said. In that case, Terrazas-Baxter said, CBP coordinated with health officials in advance so that the individual could be transported to the county’s quarantine.

Kramer said ICE also did not notify the men’s relatives that they were infected.

Minority Humanitarian Foundation is a four-person nonprofit group founded two and a half years ago to aid immigrants seeking asylum in the United States. They pick up migrants from three area detention centers, often waiting hours for their release. They welcome the migrants, apologize for their detention and call them guests, book them free hotel rooms and tickets to their sponsors or relatives.

The man from Cameroon said in an interview that he tested positive after a horrific year. He is gay and fled Cameroon after his boyfriend was killed. He traveled first to Turkey, where he tried without success to reach Europe, and then to Mexico, where he could not find a job because he doesn’t speak Spanish. He crossed into the United States on Jan. 27 and was detained. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears for his safety.

He said he tested negative upon arrival. But more than a month later, he developed a rash and went to sick bay. He said he was put in a dirty, recently occupied room, where crumbs of food were scattered on the bed. He fears that is where he got sick, but cannot say for sure.

Days later, officials told him he had made bond and would be released, and he said they asked him if his sister would pick him up. But on March 11, his release date, they handed him a sheet of paper that showed he had tested positive.

He panicked. His sister had recently had a baby. But he feared for his own health in detention, and he boarded a van with federal officers wearing face shields and plastic to cover their clothes.

He froze when he spotted Marcel Reyes, a driver for the Minority Humanitarian Foundation, waiting at the bus station to pick him up. He did not want to infect anyone.

“I can die alone, but killing other people is not good,” he said in the interview.

Reyes said he has diabetes and hypertension — underlying conditions that make him a high risk for severe complications or death from covid — and worried about passing the virus to his wife and 4-year-old son.

Another ICE van arrived, and the Cameroonian tried to board it to return to the immigration facility.

“Why am I being released?” the man asked an official, according to a video Reyes captured of the incident, but the official left.

Reyes soon left to pick up another released detainee at ICE’s offices, while working with Kramer and foundation CEO Mark Lane to arrange safe transport for the Cameroonian man. But when he went back to the bus station, the man was gone.

He circled the block until he found him alone in a park. The man had called 911 for help because he didn’t know what to do.

The next day, Reyes returned to pick up Robert, a 32-year-old Cuban asylum seeker detained since January, although he has asthma, a risk factor. His pregnant wife — a migrant released after a few days in CBP custody — lives in Texas. Their young daughter died in Cuba in a medical malpractice case that led to tensions with the government, and prompted him to flee with his wife. They asked that their full names not be used, because they worried that criticizing the government could hurt their asylum case.

When he learned he had covid, Robert said he questioned immigration agents.

“I don’t want to infect her,” he said. “They said nothing. They just let me go.”

Reyes said he asked the government’s driver about Robert’s covid status and said the driver told him Robert was negative.

But Robert told Reyes that was untrue, and showed him a piece of paper that said he tested positive that day, March 12.

Reyes called the episode a threat to his health. “When the government is doing this to you purposely, if you can’t trust the government, who can you trust?” he said.

In quarantine, the Cameroonian man says he feels fine and Robert said he is experiencing mild dizziness. After 10 days and they’re cleared, Kramer said the foundation will pick them up again.

Laura Rivera, director of a Southern Poverty Law Center program that provides free legal representation to immigrants in custody in Georgia and Louisiana, said she has heard of similar ICE drop-offs in Georgia but did not say anything to the media to avoid creating a backlash against immigrants. She said many detainees are catching the virus inside the United States rather than bringing it in.

But she and others said ICE is spreading the virus by failing to release detainees from congregate facilities.

“They’re in a burning building, they need to get out,” Rivera said of detainees. “They’re basically just trying to stay alive.”

Federal judges have criticized ICE in recent days for failing to quickly review the cases of those who are eligible for release, or to mount a vaccination program in New York.

ICE says it tests migrants when they arrive at the facilities, quarantines those who are sick and provides medical care. Nearly 10,000 detainees have been infected with the virus and nine have died. More than 420 detainees have active cases, up from 370 a few days ago, according to the agency’s website.