Photo: Donis with his youngest of three children and his wife, following his release by court order.

Judge Orders ICE to Maintain Pandemic Protections at Detention Centers

SAN FRANCISCO — This afternoon a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction in response to a class action legal challenge by immigrants detained at two California immigration detention centers where conditions are rife for the spread of COVID-19.

Having already issued a series of individual release orders to reduce population levels, the Court ordered ICE to “at a minimum, lock in place the safety improvements achieved in recent weeks.” The two facilities, Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield and the Yuba County Jail in Marysville, currently hold 200 people, which is less than half the population at the time the case was filed on April 20. The facilities held 427 people at the facilities on April 25.

Judge Vince Chhabria of the U.S. District Court of Northern California in this order criticized ICE’s “obstinance” in opposing release of individuals “on a blanket basis” in “positions that are downright irrational, not to mention inhumane.”

“Release to me has meant everything; a person can’t stay healthy, can’t stay safe in there,” said Livia Pinheiro, who was released May 26. “My girlfriend is still detained; she’s suffering and she’s also at high risk. I want to be part of that fight for her, the same way people fought for me.”

The order provided that, “ICE’s conduct and attitude towards its detainees at Mesa Verde and Yuba County Jail since the pandemic began have shown beyond doubt that ICE cannot currently be trusted to prevent constitutional violations at these particular facilities without judicial intervention.”

“In my final days there, I had just had an operation, and the jail put me inside a dirty cell in which I didn’t have water,” said Jose Luis Lopez Guevara, a 78-year-old who underwent heart surgery in ICE custody, and who the Court ordered released over ICE’s opposition. “There are still so many people in the jail, suffering in the same conditions, and they must be released too.”   

Judge Chhabria also noted that ICE has provided at least one misrepresentation to the court. Contrary to ICE’s assertions that it was quarantining people transferred into the two facilities, ICE transferred at least two people from a facility with dozens of confirmed COVID-19 cases and released them directly into dormitories.

A coalition of legal organizations is representing the plaintiffs, including the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundations of Northern California and Southern California, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, and the law firms of Lakin & Wille LLP and Cooley LLP.

Quotes from Co-Counsel

“Today a federal court confirmed that ICE cannot be trusted to protect the health and safety of those in its custody,” said Mano Raju, the elected Public Defender of San Francisco, and co-counsel in the litigation. “We are pleased with the decision, and our Immigration Unit will not stop fighting until every person is released from these inhumane conditions.”

“The Court’s order lays bare ICE’s utter disregard for both the law and the safety of people in its custody,” said Bree Bernwanger of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “The need for court intervention is a sign of systemic failure: we cannot trust law enforcement agencies to protect the value of human life.”

“This result represents a major step toward protecting our clients from COVID-19 and shielding the healthcare systems in surrounding communities,” said Martin Schenker, Cooley LLP partner. “ICE must not remain indifferent to the health of detainees under its control.”

“Today’s decision affirms a truth our clients have lived with for months: ICE cannot be trusted to responsibly address the deadly threat of COVID-19 to immigrants in its custody,” said Jordan Wells, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California.

“Judge Chhabria rightly rejected the government’s assertions that district courts lack the authority to remedy ICE’s constitutional violations and release individuals during a life-threatening pandemic. That is plainly false,” said Judah Lakin of Lakin & Wille LLP.

“This order is a critical first step in keeping in place the protections that our clients have fought hard for, and we will continue that fight alongside them,” said Angélica Salceda of the ACLU Foundation of Northern California.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here