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Judge Urged to Block Detention of Immigrants Vulnerable to Virus

A federal judge Friday considered whether to order the removal of at-risk immigrant detainees at a Southern California immigration detention facility which, despite being in the heart of the state’s Covid-19 hotspot, has so far only had two positive cases among detainees.

SAN DIEGO (CN) — A federal judge Friday considered whether to order the removal of at-risk immigrant detainees at a Southern California immigration detention facility which, despite being in the heart of the state’s Covid-19 hotspot, has so far only had two positive cases among detainees.

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, a George W. Bush nominee, considered issuing a second preliminary injunction brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of immigrant detainees housed in detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego.

The Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego was once the site of the largest Covid-19 outbreak among U.S. immigration detention facilities, prompting the ACLU to file a class action on behalf of immigrants housed there.

While Sabraw initially granted a temporary restraining order requiring the CoreCivic-run Otay Mesa Detention Center to release medically vulnerable immigrants, he denied releasing additional detainees in May after the ACLU claimed the private prison was failing to practice appropriate social distancing measures necessary to keep detainees safe.

But while the Otay Mesa Detention Center had the largest Covid-19 outbreak among immigration facilities, the Imperial Regional Detention Facility 135 miles east has so far only had two positive cases among immigrant detainees.

Sabraw made that distinction during a virtual court hearing Friday whether to mirror the same measures in Imperial he took to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus in San Diego’s detention center.

“If you look at Imperial County, which is the hot spot in the state of California and juxtapose the IRDF facility, which only has two positives, wouldn’t it stand to reason the IRDF is doing a good job, that it has a firewall,” Sabraw asked ACLU attorney Monika Langarica.

“The fact that there are two positives does not discount the need for court intervention,” Langarica argued.

“The trajectory of the pandemic is not linear, and it is definitely not linear without preventative measures. What happens today is not dispositive of what will happen tomorrow. IRDF is not using all reasonable measures available to them,” Langarica added.

The ACLU argued because IRDF is not testing all immigrant detainees for Covid-19 and it has closed two housing pods for construction maintenance, it is infringing the detainees’ constitutional rights by failing to use all measures possible to create a detention environment which complies with social distancing guidelines.

Langarica noted such failures have led to explosive Covid-19 outbreaks in other congregate settings such as San Quentin State Prison in Northern California and the Otay Mesa Detention Center where an immigrant died during the ACLU’s litigation brought to release at-risk detainees.

Higgs Fletcher attorney John Rice, representing the IRDC, said to date 100 of 287 immigrants currently detained have been tested for Covid-19, with 92 testing negative, 2 testing positive and six tests pending.

But fourteen IRDF staff members have tested positive for Covid-19, with nine having recovered, Rice said.

The five detainees identified as medically vulnerable who haven’t been released were evaluated to ensure “they won’t be in danger” due to their housing assignment, he said.

If detainees are considered at-risk, they will be placed in isolation in the medical pod, Rice added.

“Everything that can be done is being done. What the CDC guidelines say is the recommended distance is 6-feet, but even within those guidelines it recommends, it is not always possible in some settings,” Rice said.

“The proof is in the pudding in that we’ve only had two positives, but like everywhere else in the world, that’s subject to change,” he added.

For new detainees transferred from other facilities or brought in for the first time, Rice said if they have symptoms or were exposed to coronavirus, they are tested and quarantined for 14 days in a single-cell unit.

Those who are detained with travel companions are treated as “family units” and detained together, he added.

But Langarica pointed out transferring detainees flies in the face of CDC guidelines which “strongly suggest” inmates are not transferred between facilities unless “absolutely necessary,” namely, for medical reasons.

“If defendants are going to force them to remain confined, they need to make testing available. Only through testing will they have an accurate accounting of the impact of transfers,” Lagarica said.

Sabraw took the matter under submission and said he would issue an order “as quickly as possible.”

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