SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The federal government on Thursday agreed to adopt a set of sweeping safety measures at two California ICE detention centers to settle a lawsuit claiming it failed to protect immigrant detainees from potentially deadly Covid-19 infections.
More than 400 detainees sued Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in April 2020 seeking the immediate release of vulnerable detainees and compliance with public health guidelines at the Mesa Verde detention center in Bakersfield and Yuba County Jail in Marysville.
Shortly after the suit was filed, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria ordered the agency to reduce overcrowding at both facilities. He later required rapid Covid tests for staff and detainees, ordered ICE to enact strict Covid-19 containment measures and temporarily halted the acceptance of new detainees after outbreaks at both facilities.
ICE had filed multiple appeals in the Ninth Circuit challenging Chhabria’s decisions. Last year, a Ninth Circuit judge suggested that Chhabria may have overstepped his authority by “micromanaging” ICE’s pandemic response policies, but the agency agreed to voluntarily dismiss those appeals last month.
In a proposed settlement filed with the court Wednesday, ICE agreed to limit the number of detainees at each facility and abide by Covid-19 safety protocols previously mandated by Chhabria. The settlement terms will stay in effect for three years.
“This settlement mandates important, potentially life-saving measures that will reduce the spread of COVID in ICE detention centers, and also limits the number of people in custody in these facilities during this pandemic,” said Sean Riordan, senior staff attorney for immigrants rights at the ACLU of Northern California.
Under the terms of the deal, ICE will to limit the number of detainees at Mesa Verde to 52 when accepting new intakes and 78 people when not accepting new intakes. Yuba County Jail will cap its detainee population at 52.
Before the pandemic, Yuba County Jail housed up to 420 inmates including 210 immigrants. Mesa Verde, run by the private contractor GEO Group, had capacity to accommodate up to 400 detainees.
The deal also requires ICE to comply with previous court mandates, such as screening and testing all new arrivals, separating bunk beds by at least six feet, testing all staff and detainees once a week, reporting positive test results and isolating detainees who have symptoms or test positive for the virus.
Additionally, the agency will make vaccines, booster shots, masks and cleaning supplies available to all detainees. It will also educate detainees about Covid-19 risks and require staff members to follow public health guidelines for preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The settlement further forbids ICE from re-detaining any immigrant who was released during the pandemic unless they are found to be a flight risk or pose a danger to public safety or national security.
“What’s critical here is that there are protections against arbitrary re-detention for people who have been released by ICE or by court order during the pandemic,” Riordan said.
The deal also allows ICE to phase out certain protections within 60 days after the settlement takes effect. The agreement requires ICE to consult with class attorneys before implementing any changes and provides a mechanism for class counsel to challenge those decisions before a magistrate judge if it believes they are inconsistent with CDC guidelines.
Riordan said he believes this case puts a spotlight on major problems with the U.S. immigration system. He said it has exposed how the government overuses detention to lock up tens of thousands of immigrants “unnecessarily and in dangerous conditions.”
The civil liberties lawyer added that this litigation resulted in meaningful improvements, such as proper social distancing protocols, at the facilities and that outbreaks could have been far worse without court intervention.
“We think it’s likely that this case and the actions that the judge overseeing it took did in fact save lives,” Riordan said.
Attorneys from the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, ACLU of Southern California and Cooley LLP also represented immigrant detainees in the lawsuit.
San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju praised the deal in a statement Wednesday.
“This groundbreaking settlement is the product of tremendous bravery and perseverance from everyone involved, especially those trapped inside,” Raju said. “While the fight is not over, this settlement takes us one step closer to ending the inhumane practice of immigration detention.”
ICE did not immediately return an email requesting comment on the settlement
Judge Chhabria must approve the deal before it can be finalized.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.