November 11, 2020
PRESS CONTACT: Valerie Ibarra – SF Public Defender’s Office – (628)249-7946
New Documents Reveal ICE and Private Prison Contractor Exacerbates a COVID Outbreak at Immigration Detention Center
Hid Risks to Immigrants In Grave Danger Due to COVID Pandemic, Misled Court
SAN FRANCISCO – Last night, detained immigrants held at the Mesa Verde ICE detention center, in Bakersfield California, filed new documents in support of their request that the U.S. District Court continue to exercise oversight over a facility that suffered a severe COVID outbreak in July and August. By mid-August, more than half of those detained and more than a quarter of the staff became infected with the virus.
Newly-disclosed documents in the plaintiffs’ court filing reveal that ICE and GEO officials ignored CDC protocols, misled the court about their practices, and acted in a manner which amplified the risk of COVID transmission.
The documents reveal that ICE officials:
· Waited four days to offer testing to a dorm exposed to an individual who had tested positive. Despite having tests on-site that produce rapid results, they refused to use them. Test results took two weeks to return. In the meantime, they crammed over 50 people who had been exposed to COVID into a single dorm. By the time they did, 90% of a combined dorm had become infected. (Ex. 33, 34, 48)
· Compromised medical standards and knowingly left people with COVID symptoms in a crowded dorm where social distancing was impossible after the outbreak started. Tests would later reveal that everyone who had been identified as symptomatic was already infected with COVID at that time. (Ex. 48, 49)
· Misrepresented to the court the distance between bunk beds in its facility to support a claim that they allowed for adequate social distance when they did not.
· Intentionally downplayed risk factors and symptoms to avoid testing. ICE tested zero detainees for COVID symptoms before July 29 – the day the outbreak started. (Ex. 13)
· Ignored the growing threat of staff transmission. (Ex. 25)
After refusing to test detained immigrants for months because of a lack of space to house positives, ICE did so feverishly in fear of a restraining order. On Aug. 4, ICE asked for testing to be completed “urgently.” Onsite medical staff responded: “I just stayed and tested them all because they said a lawyer was going to put a restraining order on us.” (Ex. 50)
“These documents show that high level ICE officials were fully aware that their facilities were a powder keg for COVID infection. They knew what needed to be done to avoid an outbreak,” said Emi MacLean, Deputy Public Defender at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. “Not only did they fail to take steps to avoid an outbreak, they made it worse and misled the public about what they were doing.”
“The Trump Administration has repeatedly downplayed the dangers of COVID-19, which has put millions of lives at risk,” said Bree Bernwanger, senior staff attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “This same callousness was on full display here. Now more than ever it is clear that we cannot trust ICE to protect people in its custody.”
“That ICE and GEO knowingly exposed immigrant detainees to such an unreasonable risk of harm is both inexcusable and illegal,” said Sean Riordan, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California.
In August, at the time of the outbreak, the District Court intervened and both prevented the introduction of any new detainees and required weekly testing of staff and people detained. Now ICE and GEO have asked the court to lift these restrictions.
An evidentiary hearing in the matter is scheduled for November 16, 2020 before Federal District Court Judge Vince Chhabria in the Northern District of California, where ICE officials will testify under oath. Among those expected to testify are ICE Deputy Field Office Director Erik Bonnar and Acting Deputy Field Office Director Moises Becerra.
Plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU of Northern and Southern California, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Lakin & Wille LLP, and Cooley LLP.
View the November 10, 2020 court filings here: