Medically Vulnerable Immigrants Denied Release From ICE Facility

A vehicle drives into the Otay Mesa detention center in San Diego. (AP Photo/Elliot Spagat, File)

(CN) — A group of medically vulnerable immigrants who are being held in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility with the worst Covid-19 outbreak in the nation cannot be released despite their claims about the risks of contracting the virus, a federal judge in California ruled Tuesday. 

In a class action filed last month by the American Civil Liberties Union, a group of civil immigration detainees said the Trump administration should be restrained from detaining medically vulnerable immigrants during the pandemic. 

Sanitary conditions inside the crowded Otay Mesa Detention Facility in San Diego and nearby Imperial Regiona; Detention Facility make the group susceptible to contracting Covid-19 and put them at risk of becoming seriously ill or dying, the lawsuit states.

Otay Mesa, operated by CoreCivic, has the highest number of Covid-19 cases of any ICE detention facility in the country with 160 positive cases as of May 22.

In response to the outbreak, officials implemented social distancing measures and released people held in detention, an attorney for facility Warden C. LaRose said in a court hearing Friday, adding that the infection rate at Otay Mesa has declined.

But ACLU attorneys representing the group said in the telephonic hearing Friday that release, not social distancing, is the only appropriate measure to protect medically vulnerable immigrants from infection.

The group of immigrants was granted provisional subclass certification and a temporary restraining order in an April 30 ruling by U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw, a President George W. Bush appointee, who also ordered ICE to release medically vulnerable subclass members. 

Following the ruling, ICE released 92 of the 134 subclass members at Otay Mesa, which currently holds 758 people or at least 38% of its 1,970-person capacity. 

One subclass member detained at the facility, Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, died in a California hospital on May 6 after contracting Covid-19.

Subclass members who have not been released have a criminal history that has been deemed a threat to the community and an impediment to release, attorneys for ICE said in court documents. 

Subclass members’ attorneys argued the temporary restraining order should be converted to a preliminary injunction to protect the group’s Fifth Amendment due process rights.

An injunction should issue prohibiting ICE from accepting new detainees at Otay Mesa and from redetaining subclass members it released, the group argued.

Attorneys for the Trump administration opposed the injunction request, claiming that improving conditions at the facility indicate the group would not succeed on their claim.

Sabraw sided with the Trump administration Tuesday, writing in an 8-page order that, although Otay Mesa has the worst coronavirus outbreak among ICE facilities, the majority of the remaining subclass members are housed in rooms with no Covid-19 positive cases.

“That is a stark contrast to the situation that existed before the TRO issued, where medically vulnerable detainees were being housed throughout the facility with other detainees who had tested positive,” the ruling states. “As of May 20, 2020, only four subclass members were in that situation.”

The Trump administration has an interest in continuing to hold remaining subclass members because their criminal record did not qualify them for supervised release afforded to other class members, Sabraw’s ruling states.

“That interest may not be adequately served by alternatives to detention, and it fundamentally alters the analysis of whether the continued confinement of these subclass members violates their substantive due process rights,” the ruling states.

A Justice Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling Tuesday.

Sabraw said the injunction should not issue since the likelihood of subclass members contracting the virus has decreased under current conditions.

“[Otay Mesa] is now operating at thirty-eight percent capacity, all but four subclass members are currently housed in units without any positive cases, and the remaining four are in a unit that is at twelve percent capacity with only fifteen detainees in a unit designed for 128, all of whom are in single cells,” the ruling states. 

An ACLU spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.

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