Immigrants in California detention centers sue ICE over coronavirus threat

Class action lawsuit alleges overcrowding, lack of sanitation create unsafe living conditions

Detained immigrants crowded into the Yuba County Jail and Mesa Verde Detention Center filed a federal class action lawsuit on Monday night against Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) over unsafe living conditions, demanding immediate releases to allow for their protection against COVID-19.

Over 400 people are being held at the two facilities without the ability to practice safe social distancing during the deadly pandemic. Detainees are currently packed into crowded dormitories, cafeterias and bathrooms where it is impossible for them to keep six feet apart, and report not having sufficient resources like hand soap for sanitation and hygiene, according to attorneys and plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“The reality for those detained at Mesa Verde and Yuba County Jail is the exact opposite of what we all now know is required to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” said Emi MacLean, an attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. The City’s Public Defender’s Office is part of a coalition of legal organizations representing the plaintiffs.

“Social distancing is impossible here,” said detainee Brenda Ruiz Tovar in a statement on Tuesday. Tovar, 31, the mother of a U.S. Citizen, is still detained at Yuba County Jail even though she has won her immigration case twice, because the federal government has appealed the decision a second time. “We are crammed together. If there is an outbreak here, we will all catch it.”

A group of detainees at Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield began a hunger strike in protest of these conditions, but the private company that ICE contracts to run the facility threatened to cut off their access to the facility’s commissary. Faced with losing access to soap and other vital resources, the protesters broke their hunger strike. The lawsuit challenges this retaliation by the detention center as illegal and unconstitutional.

“We fight the system, days, months and years to be reunited with our loved ones. This pandemic has caused us not to be quiet anymore, because our detention for a civil matter may be a death sentence,” said Charles Joseph at a zoom press conference on Tuesday. Joseph, who was recently released from immigration detention at the Mesa Verde Detention Center, is a client of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, which provides some free representation to detained immigrants.

Dr. Nick Nelson, medical director of the Highland Hospital Human Rights Clinic , who examines asylum seekers as part of his job, has been inside of Mesa Verde and understands the necessity of making special considerations when building and running facilities to allow for safe social distancing.

“Mesa Verde is a cinderblock detention center that was not built with any of these considerations in mind,” Dr. Nelson said. “The hallways are four feet wide, the conference rooms where I interview people are small and minimally ventilated. Everywhere you go, you have to go with somebody. The areas where people live are extremely crowded.”

“Even one person who can spread this virus in an overcrowded environment like that is gonna infect an extraordinary number of people and this is a disease that’s at least 10 times as dangerous as seasonal flu in terms of mortality and it’s already killed tens of thousands of Americans,” he added.

Detainees said that they were informed of social distancing and the risks that congregate living situations pose not from ICE, but by watching television, or by hearing from lawyers or family members.

“It’s neither discussed with them at the detention centers, nor is it a realistic possibility,” MacLean said.

“They sleep in bunk beds where they hit another bed if they sit up on the bottom bunk. They line up like sardines in the cafeteria to get food, and then sit down at full tables. They wash their hands and go to the bathroom in crowded and unclean spaces, where they’re practically shoulder to shoulder with the person at the next sink, next toilet, or next shower stall, and they describe dirty toilets, unsanitary spaces, and inadequate supplies for sanitation and hygiene.”

“The metal toilets and sink are encrusted and stink of grime and human waste,” plaintiff Lawrence Mwaura said of the restroom facility of the recreation area at the Yuba County Jail in a statement.

Plaintiff Javier Alfaro, 39, has lived inside Mesa Verde Detention Center since January. His dorm has been at capacity since his arrival. Whenever someone is released a new person takes their place within hours.

“We do not know if the people coming into our unit have been exposed to the coronavirus, but it makes us nervous,” Alfaro said in a statement.

Barbara Garcia, former director of public health for San Francisco has spent over 30 years supervising and implementing medical and behavioral services for congregate living programs including jails, disaster shelters and permanent shelters.

“This virus is a game changer for all these types of facilities. Regulations on the physical requirements of these facilities will have to change,” said Garcia.

“Many times it’s the staff bringing in the virus, especially in locked facilities. Staff infect other staff, their families, and those that are locked in these facilities,” she added. “We can no longer have people in crowded conditions with no 24-hour medical oversight and no vaccine. Those that are detained in ICE facilities today are in danger of sickness and death. The staff working at these facilities are also in danger for themselves and their communities.”

Tovar has had symptoms consistent with COVID-19 after caring for a sick woman in Yuba County Jail who was taken away for medical treatment. Tovar has not been tested, and doesn’t believe anyone at the detention center has.

There is no evidence that any detainees at either facility have been tested for COVID-19.

In response to complaints, ICE said that they are doing enough, but they have only tested a few hundred people and one-third of them were found positive for COVID-19, according to MacLean.

The Guatemalan government has suspended deportation flights from the U.S. because many people who were deported tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival.

“ICE is clearly not doing enough,” Maclean said. “The lack of testing does not equate to the lack of an outbreak. Civil immigration detainees are held in order to ensure that they attend their immigration court hearings. This detention should not compel them to risk their lives.”

The legal coalition representing the plaintiffs includes the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the ACLU Foundations of Northern California and Southern California, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) of the San Francisco Bay Area, Lakin & Wille LLP, and Cooley LLP.

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