Protect public health by stopping the pipeline into immigration detention

Our patient’s voice trembled as she shared how her husband was released from jail only to be transferred immediately to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). She revealed the extra shifts she worked to provide for her family and how she relied on her 16-year-old daughter to care for her other children. Tears fell as she described her anxiety over his possible deportation and the family’s trepidation he will be exposed to COVID-19 in the detention center’s close quarters.

Within the walls of the ICE detention center, another patient feared for his life knowing he was susceptible to severe illness from COVID-19 due to asthma and other chronic conditions. He slept in a crowded room with multiple bunk beds, making it impossible to socially distance as recommended by the CDC. Our patient is a Lao refugee who was sentenced to life at age 19. He completed 22 years in California’s state prison system (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR), granted parole after graduating from numerous programs, and looked forward to finally reuniting with his family. That moment was torn away from him when he was transferred to ICE custody by CDCR instead of being released. Due to relentless advocacy from family, advocates, lawyers and medical professionals, our patient was freed last month from ICE.

These are two stories of our patients, representing many California residents who have been deemed eligible for release, yet continue to be funnelled from jails and state prisons into ICE custody. Shockingly for immigration detention centers, ICE reported on June 12th that of the 7,364 people they have tested, 2,059 persons tested positive, making it a 28% positive rate among those tested. ICE has still only tested about 30% of the 24,713 people locked up in their facilities. Close living quarters, frequent movements of guards and contractors within facilities, and lack of basic necessities such as soap and clean water make stopping a highly infectious disease like COVID-19 impossible in all of our carceral systems.

Moreover, immigrants who have completed their time in CDCR or jail custody, and are then subsequently transferred to ICE, face a potential death sentence. Two people have tragically died of COVID-19 while in ICE custody, including Carlos Escobar Mejia, who was detained in San Diego’s Otay Mesa Detention Center. On May 17, 74-year-old Choung Won Ahn, who had severe health issues, died by suicide in Bakerfield’s Mesa Verde Detention Center after ICE refused to release him.

As physicians, we see the transfer of patients from one cage to another during this pandemic in direct violation to the Hippocratic Oath we have pledged: “The health and well-being of my patient will be my first consideration.”Because immigration detention facilities are emerging as epicenters during the pandemic, we call on Governor Newsom to use his executive authority to end the main pipeline funneling people into ICE. We stand alongside the almost 100 legal and community organizations who advocate for the halt of ICE transfers from California prisons and jails, and for people to be released to the care of their loved ones instead.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has already demonstrated leadership during the COVID-19 epidemic by using data, not politics, to guide our state’s response. To continue flattening the curve, we urge him to protect our patients from dangerous conditions in ICE detention centers by ceasing California’s collaboration with ICE from our jails and state prisons. Now is the time to make critical decisions that will save lives and protect the health of all Californians.

Dr. Nicole Tantoco, ObGyn Resident Physician at UCSF

Dr. Nhi Tran, Family Medicine Resident Physician at UCSF

Dr. Hedieh Matinrad, Internal Medicine Resident Physician at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center

Dr. Michelle Lough, Family Medicine Resident Physician at UCSF

Dr. Silvia Fonseca, Family Medicine Resident Physician at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center

The views expressed in this piece are our own. We do not speak for our institutions.


COVID-19 ICE Detainee Statistics by Facility

ICE Detainee Who Died Of Covid-19 Suffered Horrifying Neglect

ICE said a 74-year-old was too dangerous to release. He died of apparent suicide


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