SAN FRANCISCO – Immigrants detained by ICE during the COVID-19 pandemic in two California detention facilities have reached a groundbreaking settlement agreement to resolve a long-running class action lawsuit against ICE and GEO, a private contractor who manages one of the facilities. The settlement agreement will compel ICE and GEO to preserve safety measures to protect people in immigration detention from COVID-19. It will also limit ICE’s authority to redetain the hundreds of people released during the course of the lawsuit. The plaintiffs in Zepeda Rivas v. Jennings today presented the settlement agreement to Judge Vince Chhabria of the U.S. District Court of Northern California for preliminary approval.
Plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in April 2020, at the early stage of the pandemic, to challenge the unsafe conditions for immigrants in custody at the two detention facilities, Mesa Verde Detention Center and Yuba County Jail. Documents and testimony uncovered during the lawsuit revealed that ICE and GEO delayed testing during an outbreak, knowingly left people with COVID symptoms in a crowded dormitory, and made repeated misrepresentations to the court regarding their COVID response. Judge Chhabria recognized, in a scathing December 2020 order, that “the conduct of the key ICE and GEO officials in charge of operations” was “appalling.”
“When we filed this lawsuit, ICE had put our clients and communities at risk by detaining as many people as possible in filthy, crowded dorms and cells, creating a tinderbox for COVID-19,” said Bree Bernwanger, senior staff attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.
As a result of litigation and related organizing efforts, the population in custody at these two facilities dropped from 462 to 62. The settlement agreement provides strong protections against re-detention for the approximately 250 immigrants released from custody as a result of the lawsuit.
The settlement agreement also provides three years of health and safety protections for those remaining in custody. This includes a temporary population cap and ongoing population limits to allow for social distancing; testing and vaccination mandates for staff and people in custody; the release of vulnerable people; and compliance with CDC guidance.
“This settlement mandates important, potentially life-saving measures that will reduce the spread of COVID in ICE detention centers, and also limits the number of people in custody in these facilities during this pandemic,” said Sean Riordan, senior staff attorney for the immigrants rights program at the ACLU of Northern California. “During this dangerous pandemic, ICE officials should be doing everything possible to release people from detention facilities.”
“When COVID hit, I was terrified because the government was crowding so many of us together in such a dangerous place and not doing anything at all to protect us from the virus,” said Brenda Ruiz Tovar, one of the plaintiffs in the case who was released from custody as a result of the lawsuit. “I am so grateful to have been free for almost two years, and able to support my son and my family and stay healthy. Because of my release, I completed school and now work as a dental assistant. Still, I think every day about the people who are still locked up in that place. I’m happy that the settlement makes conditions safer, but I cannot accept that the government is still detaining people like me unnecessarily during a dangerous pandemic.”
“This groundbreaking settlement is the product of tremendous bravery and perseverance from everyone involved, especially those trapped inside,” said Mano Raju, San Francisco public defender. “While the fight is not over, this settlement takes us one step closer to ending the inhumane practice of immigration detention.”
Plaintiffs are represented by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the ACLU Foundations of Northern and Southern California, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Lakin & Wille, LLP, and Cooley, LLP.