ACLU Pushes Feds for Release or Social Distancing at ICE Detention Facility

The Adelanto Detention Center in Adelanto, Calif., a desert community northeast of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — While most of the nation continues social distancing, immigrant advocates say conditions at a California immigration detention facility create a “tinderbox scenario” to spread Covid-19 and the situation could become deadly for anyone held in the facility.

Over 23,000 people have died in the United States due to the spread of Covid-19. Tremendous efforts have been made to reduce the spread of the viral infection, yet that reality has not seemed to touch the Adelanto detention facility in Southern California’s high desert.

Undocumented people held at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Adelanto sleep on bunk beds in crowded cells, eat meals at crammed tables and use communal bathrooms, all of which makes social distancing impossible, according to a federal lawsuit filed Monday evening by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“They have little or no access to hand sanitizer, gloves, or masks,” the ACLU writes in its 22-page petition. “The government’s own medical subject matter experts have described this as a ‘tinderbox scenario.’”

That scenario was the subject of a letter by two medical experts who are contracted with the Department of Homeland Security. They wrote there is an “imminent risk to the health and safety of immigrant detainees” and for those outside the facilities if Covid-19 is allowed to spread.

Dr. Josiah Rich and Dr. Scott Allen’s March 20 letter was not issued on behalf of Homeland Security, but meant to highlight their concerns for the threat to public health.

The ACLU wants the court to order a significant population reduction at the Riverside County facility. The organization claims the federal agency is violating the detainee’s constitutional due process rights and holding them “in such close proximity to one another places them at serious risk of being infected with Covid-19.”

If ICE does not reduce the population at the Adelanto facility, the ACLU wants the judge to order ICE to keep the detainees at least six feet apart to practice social distancing.

Positive coronavirus cases have been reported at numerous ICE detention facilities throughout the country and last month ICE informed its field offices to begin evaluating some vulnerable populations for release. But the ACLU says the Adelanto facility is too densely populated to allow social distancing and staff members — including medical personnel — do not generally wear masks or other personal protective equipment.

“Staff arrive and leave on a shift basis,” the ACLU says. “There is limited ability to adequately screen staff for new, asymptomatic infection.”

ACLU senior attorney Jessica Karp Bansal said local communities in Southern California would also be threatened if there was a spread of Covid-19 because they are not equipped to handle a mass outbreak.

“ICE’s failure to take action to prevent the spread of Covid-19 at Adelanto puts immigrants detained there at grave risk of death or serious injury,” Bansal said in a statement.

ICE did not respond to an email requesting comment by press time.

The conditions aren’t confined to Adelanto. Last week, detainees at the Mesa Verde ICE detention facility in Bakersfield, California, started a hunger strike over the lack of Covid-19 preventative measures taken by staff there.

Attorney Susan Beaty with the Oakland-based immigration legal service Centro Legal De La Raza says about 100 detainees at the facility are now on the strike and organizers have been threatened by staff.

According to multiple news outlets, ICE officials have denied there were any hunger strikes at the Mesa Verde facility and called the reports “completely false.”

Beaty said because ICE has a pattern of ignoring health risks for detainees, federal courts have had to step in to provide relief with judges following U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention guidelines to release people. But such relief is needed on a much larger scale, she said.

“It’s worsening every day,” Beaty said in an interview. “We need elected officials and state governments to step up. If folks are not released en masse soon, we’re looking at potentially a serious health crisis.”

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