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Ontario man in ICE custody dies after contracting coronavirus

Click to play video 'Coronavirus: Canadian dies from coronavirus in U.S. ICE custody' Coronavirus: Canadian dies from coronavirus in U.S. ICE custody
WATCH: Canadian dies from coronavirus in U.S. ICE custody

A Canadian man who was among nearly 300 detainees diagnosed with coronavirus at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility has died.

James Hill, a Richmond Hill, Ont., native, contracted COVID-19 at the Immigration Centers of America Farmville Detention Center in Virginia.

Read more: Coronavirus: Frozen immigration systems across the globe keeping thousands apart

The 72-year-old was awaiting deportation to Canada after serving a prison sentence. According to Hill’s nephew, he was diagnosed shortly before he was scheduled to return.

“It’s just so tragic that he was so close to coming back to his new life,” said Douglas Hunt, who believes ICE was negligent in his uncle’s death.

Hunt remembered his uncle as a positive person who was very spiritual and “wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

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There have been 290 coronavirus cases at the Virginia facility as of Wednesday, according to statistics from ICE. A court petition filed last month that seeks release for the detainees states that the overall population of the detention centre is 350 to 400.

ICE confirmed Hill died Wednesday night at a hospital in Virginia. The agency said in a statement that he reported shortness of breath on July 10 and then spent several weeks in hospital.

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Hill tested positive for coronavirus, though ICE said the preliminary cause of death has not yet been determined.

“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive, agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases. Fatalities in ICE custody, statistically, are exceedingly rare and occur at a fraction of the national average for the U.S. detained population,” the agency said in a statement Friday.

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Coronavirus: U.S. COVID-19 deaths could reach 300,000 by early December, research model predicts

Hill moved to the U.S. to work as a physician about three decades ago after a few years of working in Canada.

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As a family doctor in Shreveport, La., Hill was convicted of a count of health-care fraud and distribution of a controlled substance in 2006 under a plea agreement. A press release from the U.S. Attorney’s office states Hill wrote illegitimate prescriptions for Oxycontin.

Hunt said he believes there was a miscarriage of justice in Hill’s case.

“Whatever anybody would think about whether he was right or wrong and deserved 14 years in prison, the guy served his time,” Hunt said. “He was a really positive person.”

Hill was released in April but he was then sent to the detention facility. A judge ordered his deportation in May.

Hill pleaded to be sent home due to fears of contracting the virus, according to Hunt. Quarters were so close that Hill told Hunt he once woke up with someone leaning over him and their sweat dripped onto his forehead.

“There was no physical distancing whatsoever,” Hunt said. “And he basically begged them to segregate him.”

Read more: Ontario reports 88 new coronavirus cases, 5th day in a row with fewer than 100 cases

According to the court application filed in July, there is an “active, uncontrollable” outbreak at the Virginia facility.

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The petition was filed last month by advocacy groups representing four detainees who are vulnerable to the virus due to age or underlying medical conditions.

“Petitioners seek relief from this court because their detention has become unreasonably prolonged and/or they are at imminent risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19,” the document states.

ICE said it has taken “extensive” precautions to protect those in custody amid the coronavirus pandemic. Arrest and custody determinations are made on a case-by-case basis, the agency added. But since March, the overall population of those detained has been reduced by 40 per cent, the statement said.