French teacher Djibril Coulibaly, 50, who was released from Pine Prairie Correctional Center on Thursday after being detained because of an expired visa, has tested positive for COVID-19. 

Coulibaly was taken for medical evaluation shortly after his release. He said the positive result didn’t surprise him because four out of 43 men in his dorm had tested positive during his three-week stay in Pine Prairie. He’d lost eight pounds during his detention and so, though his COVID symptoms were mild, he did not feel well.

“I’m getting weaker and weaker,” he said. “And I’ve lost my appetite.”

He also was extremely disappointed that he would not be able to hug his wife or his three children when he arrived home in Thibodaux. Instead, he had been on the phone with his wife, to set aside one of their home’s bedrooms as a quarantine-only area where he would spend the next few weeks alone. Though he had been longing to return to work at W.S. Lafargue Elementary School, that was also impossible.

A swarm of armed officers from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement picked up Coulibaly about three weeks ago as he’d paused his 2001 Toyota minivan at a stop sign outside the school in Thibodaux.

Last week, the soft-spoken elementary-school teacher who has taught in Louisiana for 19 years was told by a Pine Prairie officer that he was facing immediate deportation to his native Mali, in West Africa.

His attorney, Loyola University Law Professor Hiroko Kusuda, believed deportation was imminent when she’d received an email telling her that an ICE administrator had refused Coulibaly’s petition for a stay of deportation on Monday. Then, on Wednesday afternoon, “out of the blue,” Kusuda said, she got a call telling her that her client would be released Thursday under “an order of supervision,” the immigration equivalent of probation that came with an ankle monitor visible to those who witnessed Coulibaly’s release.

Coulibaly’s family credits a groundswell of public support, from educators, neighbors, former Peace Corps members, all of whom wrote letters and made phone calls on his behalf.

Coulibaly came to Louisiana in 2001 on a J1 work visa courtesy of CODOFIL, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. He had served as a U.S. Peace Corps translator in Mali, the nation in West Africa where he and his wife, Maïmouna, were born.

For its dual-language programs, CODOFIL relies upon a contingent of teachers recruited from French-speaking countries such as France, Belgium, Haiti, Canada, Mali, Ivory Coast and Benin. In 2020, about 50 newly hired French teachers traveled from foreign countries to work in Louisiana.

Like other CODOFIL teachers who decided to stay in Louisiana beyond their initial visa term, Coulibaly transitioned in 2007 to another type of work visa, the H-1B, for people with specialized work expertise.

But it turns out that on Sept. 30, 2010, his Opelousas employer, the St. Landry Parish School Board, missed a deadline to renew his visa, making him an unlawful resident of the United States. In 2011, then-Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., sponsored a specially tailored bill entitled “for the relief of Djibril Coulibaly” to resolve the issue, but it never got out of committee. Around the same time, ICE deferred action on his case.

Yet for the past five years, his lawyers say, Coulibaly has been summoned to Immigration Court in New Orleans several times. Each time, he has tried to stave off deportation.

Scores of immigration detainees in Louisiana’s rural lock-ups have contracted the coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic.

Currently, there are five positive cases in Pine Prairie and 82 positive cases among all ICE detention centers in Louisiana, according to the ICE website.

Although Louisiana isn’t a border state, its network of private and parish lock-ups in mostly remote, rural stretches hosts the second-highest number of ICE detainees.


Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com