March 11, 2020
The World Health Organization declares the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. More than 37,000 immigrants watch the crisis unfold from behind the walls of immigrant detention centers across the United States. Among them are Adrian Rodriguez Alcantara, Alejandro Osorio, Livia Pinheiro, and Sithy Bin. Detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, the Adelanto ICE Processing Facility, the Yuba County Jail, and the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility in California, they remain trapped in over-crowded conditions, sleeping within inches of each other in tiny cells and open dormitories, eating communally, and without sufficient access to masks, soap, or hand sanitizer.
March 19, 2020
California Governor Gavin Newsom issues a stay-at-home order, directing “all individuals in the State of California to stay home or at their place of residence except as needed to maintain continuity of operations of the federal critical infrastructure sectors.” Adrian, who is detained at Otay Mesa and is HIV positive, is terrified that if he contracts COVID-19, he will not survive. His housing unit has over 100 people. Social distancing is impossible. He joins in a hunger strike to demand that he and others be given masks.
March 24, 2020
The ACLU Foundation of Southern California, ACLU Foundation of Northern California, and co-counsel file Ortuno v. Jennings, seeking the release of 13 medically vulnerable immigrants held at the Mesa Verde and Yuba detention centers, including an 82-year-old man with multiple pre-existing conditions who ICE has thus far refused to release to his U.S. citizen daughter.
March 30, 2020
The ACLU Foundation of Southern California with co-counsel files Robles Rodriguez v. Wolf, seeking the release of six medically vulnerable immigrants held in the Adelanto ICE Processing Center. Plaintiff’s medical expert recommends “that “[f]rom a public health perspective, the most effective action to combating COVID-19 would be to depopulate Adelanto.” But ICE releases almost no one, despite government studies showing that up to 99% of those released from detention under ICE’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program appear at their immigration court hearings.
March 31, 2020
A staff member working at the Otay Mesa Detention Center tests positive for COVID-19. An outbreak begins to spread among staff and detained individuals. Ultimately, more than 300 people detained at Otay Mesa are infected with COVID-19.
April 9, 2020
Immigrants detained at Mesa Verde begin a hunger strike to call attention to unsafe conditions there. Guards retaliate by threatening to cut off access to the commissary, which detained immigrants rely on to purchase soap and other personal hygiene products.
April 13, 2020
The ACLU Foundation of Southern California with co-counsel files Hernandez Roman v. Wolf, a class-action on behalf of immigrants detained at Adelanto. Plaintiffs seek an emergency temporary restraining order demanding the government to reduce the population to allow for six-foot social distancing.
April 20, 2020
The ACLU Foundations of Northern California and Southern California with co-counsel file Zepeda Rivas v. Jennings, a class action on behalf of immigrants detained at Yuba County Jail and Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility. Despite growing awareness that social distancing is the only effective way to limit the spread of COVID-19, in the two weeks preceding the filing, ICE increases the number of immigrants detained at Yuba County Jail.
April 21, 2020
The ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Countries files Rodriguez Alcantara v. Archambeault, a class action on behalf of all those detained at Otay Mesa, where a COVID-19 outbreak is spreading rapidly. They seek a drastic reduction in the population, beginning with medically vulnerable individuals, including Adrian.
April 23, 2020
The district court in Hernandez Roman issues a scathing order, finding that “[t]he conditions of confinement at Adelanto are inconsistent with contemporary standards of human decency.” Among other things, the court finds that social distancing at Adelanto is impossible “because, quite simply, there are too many detainees at Adelanto for its size;” that staff come and go throughout the facility without wearing masks; and that detainees themselves are responsible for cleaning common areas, at times with no more than a dirty towel and a bucket of dirty water. It concludes that “Adelanto’s policies and practices subject class members to a substantial and extremely high risk of very serious harm” and also threaten the public at large. The court issues a preliminary injunction ordering the government to reduce the population of Adelanto to allow for social distancing and take other measures to mitigate the risks of COVID-19. The government immediately appeals.
April 27, 2020
The Ninth Circuit stays the Hernandez Roman preliminary injunction pending a decision on appeal. As a result, the population reduction does not go into effect. Alejandro worries constantly, knowing his diabetes and hypertension make him especially susceptible to serious illness or death from COVID-19.
April 29, 2020
The district court in Zepeda Rivas finds that “the plaintiffs have demonstrated an exceedingly strong likelihood that they will prevail on their claim that current conditions at [Mesa Verde and Yuba] violate class members’ due process rights by unreasonably exposing them to a significant risk of harm” and criticizes ICE for “fail[ing] to take sufficient action to address the obvious health risks to detainees.” The court establishes a system to consider applications for class members’ release on bail. Over the next several months, it orders 154 people released on bail, finding that they present neither a danger nor a flight risk, and that their continued detention during the pandemic is likely unconstitutional.
April 30, 2020
The district court in Rodriguez Alcantara certifies a subclass of medically vulnerable people detained at Otay Mesa, where at least 98 people in ICE custody have tested positive by the date of the order. The court finds that conditions there place medically vulnerable people at a substantial risk of serious illness or death, likely violating their substantive due process rights. It orders the government to begin reviewing subclass members for release “with the expectation that most subclass members will be released. Over the next several weeks, approximately 96 medically vulnerable individuals and the named plaintiffs in the case are released as a result of the order, including Adrian. His first breath of fresh air outside the detention center comes as an incredible relief.
May 6, 2020
As ICE insists on keeping some medically vulnerable individuals confined at Otay Mesa, Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia passes away after contracting COVID-19 at the facility. He is the first person to die from COVID-19 in ICE custody.
May 17, 2020
Choung Won Ahn, a 74-year-old man with severe health problems, dies by suicide at the Mesa Verde detention center. In March, ICE denied an emergency request for his relief.
May 19, 2020
GEO overnights approximately 1,900 COVID tests to Adelanto, with plans to begin offering testing to all staff and detainees the next day.
May 20, 2020
ICE orders GEO not to test Adelanto detainees for COVID-19, citing concerns that there are no plans for how to deal with a large number of positive results. The test kits sit unused, while dozens of detainees report symptoms of COVID-19. A plan for saturation testing of detainees at Mesa Verde is also quashed by ICE. ICE Officer Alexander Pham says in an email that ICE “will be limiting the scope of testing as much as possible,” because there is no plan for what to do if tests come back positive.
May 25, 2020
After being held in solitary confinement for over two weeks, Livia is released from ICE detention at Yuba County Jail as a result of the Zepeda Rivas case. Describing the feeling of her release, she says: “I felt like I had just come back from the dead. I felt alive again. I felt like I wasn’t left behind.”
June 4, 2020
Sithy Bin is released by order of the Zepeda Rivas court. The day of his release feels “like a gift from God.” He is able to reunite with his family, and secures a position as a program administrator with a non-profit that provides services and re-entry programs for people returning to the community from incarceration.
June 9, 2020
The district court in Zepeda Rivas finds that conditions at Mesa Verde and Yuba have improved, but that “ICE acted only because it was ordered to do so, or in response to concerns raised by the Court or the plaintiffs” and has otherwise “shown disinterested and a lack of dexterity in adjusting its conduct to respond to a global crisis.” In particular, the court finds that “ICE’s insistence on opposing [class members’] bail applications on a blanket basis has led it to take some positions that are downright irrational, not to mention inhumane.”
June 22, 2020
The district court in Hernandez Roman establishes a system for class members detained at Adelanto to apply individually for release on bail. Over the next several months, nearly 90 people are released after the court determines they pose no danger or flight risk.
July 29, 2020
A COVID-19 outbreak begins at Mesa Verde. ICE and GEO initially refuse to test detainees who have been sharing dorms with positive individuals. Instead, they cram all exposed class members together in one dorm. The layout of Mesa Verde makes containing the outbreak particularly difficult. As ICE and GEO staff have observed since as early as March 2020, Mesa Verde has space to isolate only five people at any given time. All other housing is dormitory style. ICE and GEO never create a plan for how to respond to a COVID-19 outbreak under these conditions. By the time ICE finally receives test results, 90 percent of those in the affected dorm have contracted COVID-19.
August 6, 2020
The district court in Zepeda Rivas enters a new TRO in response to the growing outbreak at Mesa Verde. It finds that Defendants have “responded to the health crisis in such a cavalier fashion” that they have “lost the right to be trusted.” It mandates regular, rapid testing of class members; limits on new intakes; and the separation of COVID-19 positive detainees. Testing shows that the outbreak has spread to other housing units, infecting nearly 50 percent of class members and 25 percent of staff. Four class members are hospitalized.
September 11, 2020
Alejandro begins his day by praying that he will be released so he can be with his son for his upcoming heart surgery. That afternoon, Alejandro is ordered released on bail by the Hernandez Roman court. Within weeks, he has regained custody of his children. He is at his son’s side when he undergoes a successful heart surgery. He sleeps for days in a hospital chair beside his son’s bed and then brings his son home with him to nurse him back to health.
September 15, 2020
The Ninth Circuit hears argument in the government’s appeal of the April 23 Hernandez Roman population reduction order, which remains stayed. Plaintiffs’ counsel receive reports from class members that numerous detainees and staff at Adelanto are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and several housing units have been placed on quarantine.
September 16, 2020
The government reveals that 38 people in two housing units at Adelanto have tested positive for COVID-19 and that test results for dozens of others in the affected units remain pending. Over the next two months, 229 class members will become infected and over 16 will be hospitalized.
September 23, 2020
The Ninth Circuit rushes out a decision in the Hernandez Roman appeal “[i]n light of the urgency” of the growing outbreak. It vacates the stay entered in April and agrees that the conditions of confinement at Adelanto are likely unconstitutional. It directs the district court to “assess what relief current conditions may warrant” and affirms the district court’s authority to order “a reduction in the population to a level that would allow for six-food social distancing, if it concludes those actions are necessary to bring the conditions to a constitutionally adequate level.”
October 15, 2020
The Hernandez Roman district court orders Defendants to reduce the population of Adelanto to 475—the level at which six-foot social distancing will be possible.
December 10, 2020
Despite the reduced population, COVID-19 continues to plague Adelanto. On December 10, 55-year-old Martin Vargas Arellano contracts the virus. He becomes severely ill and is hospitalized. He remains in the hospital or medical unit for the next three months, until he passes away on March 8, 2021. ICE fails to notify the Court or his attorney. Mr. Vargas’s death sparks widespread outrage and prompts the Hernandez Roman court to begin an investigation.
14,146 immigrants are detained in immigrant detention facilities, down from approximately 37,000 in March 2020—a nearly 65 percent reduction. The reduction is evident in all facilities in California, where population levels are a fraction of total capacity.
April 28, 2021
Citing the low detention numbers as a unique opportunity to end the cruel, senseless practice of detaining immigrants during deportation proceedings, the ACLU calls on the Biden administration to shut down ICE detention facilities.