Immigrant Detainees Sue for Release Amid Pandemic

The immigrants being held in two detention centers in California say conditions are too crowded to practice the recommended physical distancing.

(ACLU photo)

(CN) — More than 400 immigrants have filed a federal class action, seeking immediate release from two California detention facilities they say are ripe for an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

The first class action brought by detainees at Mesa Verde ICE detention facility in Bakersfield and Yuba County Jail in Marysville claims Immigration and Customs Enforcement has refused to take any meaningful action to prevent infection from spreading among detainees.

One of the detainees, 31-year-old Brenda Ruiz Tovar, said in an ACLU press release that it has been impossible to maintain the recommended 6 feet of separation from others.

“We are crammed together. If there is an outbreak here, we will all catch it,” said Tovar, who has twice won her immigration case but is still being held at Yuba County pending the government’s appeal.

Emi MacLean, an attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office said on a press call Tuesday that Tovar exhibited virus symptoms after caring for another woman who was sick.

“She was placed in a dirty cell for quarantine and has not been tested for Covid-19,” MacLean said. “She is now in a dorm where she can reach out and touch the bed beside her.”

The lawsuit says that while in quarantine, Tovar was forced to clean a bathroom area covered in feces and was unable to keep 6 feet away from her cellmate. “She was tested for the flu, but never for Covid-19, and then reintegrated into the general population,” the complaint says.

Charles Joseph, an immigrant from Fiji who was recently released from Mesa Verde, said dorms continue to be filled to capacity. Detainees went on a hunger strike to protest crowded and unsanitary conditions but called it off after GEO Group — the private contractor that runs the center— threatened to cut off access to the commissary where detainees buy soap.

“They have not changed anything so we did a hunger strike and they did threaten to take away the canteen, so the guys went back to eating,” Joseph said. “Nothing has been done. No masks, no soap, it’s horrible. They show complete recklessness and disregard for our humanity.”

Joseph said detention center staff walk in and out of the dormitories without masks or gloves. The dorm he stayed in had 100 bunk beds crammed closely together, and detainees were not given access to hand sanitizer.

The lawsuit, filed Monday and made publicly available Tuesday, seeks the release of as many detainees as necessary to mitigate Covid-19 spread. 

“We’re asking for release to make the facilities safe for those who remain inside,” said Bree Bernwanger, senior staff attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “We have also filed a temporary restraining order identifying this is an issue of great urgency that needs an immediate response.”

The class action is one of several legal actions the ACLU has taken against ICE since the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, including one seeking release of detainees at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center near Los Angeles. 

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Jesus G. Bernal ordered ICE to consider releasing medically high-risk detainees.

But lawyers for the Mesa Verde and Yuba City detainees are looking for broad relief.

“Numerous courts have released individual habeas petitioners in the past four weeks. But relief in such cases has fallen to a select number of immigrants with attorneys,” the complaint says. “Meanwhile, the vast majority of YCJ and Mesa Verde detainees lack the resources to file individual lawsuits.

“Even if they all could somehow sue, a piecemeal approach would be too slow to meet the emergency at hand, too disorganized to ensure an orderly process, and too resource-intensive to be sustainable. It would also fail to reckon with the broader issue at stake: namely, that it is unconstitutional for ICE to detain individuals in crowded detention facilities in the context of the current pandemic.”

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