SAN FRANCISCO — Immigrants detained at the Mesa Verde Detention Facility and the Yuba County Jail filed a class action lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) last night, asking the federal district court to order the immediate release of detainees from fundamentally unsafe conditions which endanger their health and lives in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic.
There are more than 400 individuals detained by ICE at Mesa Verde in Bakersfield and in Yuba County Jail. While a federal district judge has ordered the release of some individuals in response to legal challenges, this is the first class action filed on behalf of everyone detained at these two facilities.
“Social distancing is impossible here,” says Brenda Ruiz Tovar, a 31 year old mother who is detained at Yuba County Jail even though she has prevailed in her immigration case - twice - because the federal government has appealed the decision. “We are crammed together. If there is an outbreak here, we will all catch it.”
Javier Alfaro, a 39-year-old father detained at Mesa Verde, said, “I learned about ‘social distancing’ from watching the news in the detention center. Even if the authorities had told us about social distancing though, it doesn’t seem like there would be any way to practice social distancing here.”
Immigrants at both of these facilities generally sleep in packed dormitory rooms on bunk beds bolted to the floor only a few feet from each other. They use shared bathrooms, shoulder to shoulder with someone at the next sink and arms length from the next stall. They line up to get meals in crowded cafeterias, and are not provided resources for adequate sanitation and hygiene.
Detainees at Mesa Verde held a hunger strike last week challenging their continued detention in unsafe conditions amid this pandemic. They faced retaliation from detention center authorities who threatened to deny them access to commissary food unless they broke the hunger strike.
This case also challenges the illegal retaliation against those protesting these conditions.
A coalition of legal organizations is representing the plaintiffs, including the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the ACLU Foundations of Northern California and Southern California, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) of the San Francisco Bay Area, Lakin & Wille LLP, and Cooley LLP.
“Despite consensus among public health experts that these conditions will lead to an outbreak of the deadly coronavirus, ICE has consistently failed to take necessary steps to protect the health of detainees,” said San Francisco Public Defender Manohar Raju. “We cannot sit and watch our clients suffer in these outrageous conditions--we have to use whatever legal tools we have to protect them.”
“Our clients are trapped,” said Bree Bernwanger, senior staff attorney at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. “There is no question that the conditions of their detention are likely to cause a devastating outbreak, but ICE is refusing to do the one thing that could prevent it: release people.”
“Everyone in these facilities faces a risk of death because of how tightly they are packed together,” said Bill Freeman, Senior Counsel at the ACLU of Northern California. “ICE must immediately reduce the number of detainees so that they can achieve the necessary social distancing and be safe.”
“While social distancing is now ubiquitous in all corners of American society, and government authorities have been ordering reductions in prison and jail populations throughout the country, ICE’s detention centers remain a glaring aberration,” said Martin Schenker, a partner at Cooley LLP.
“ICE has remained obstinate in its resistance to meaningfully reduce the populations at Mesa Verde and Yuba,” said Judah Lakin of Lakin & Wille LLP. “ICE’s actions unnecessarily place hundreds of people in harm’s way in a manner that is not only irresponsible, but also plainly unconstitutional.”
“People on the inside of ICE facilities have not been waiting for courts and lawyers to intervene. In the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, they have been organizing to call attention to their awful conditions and the need to release them,” said Jordan Wells, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. “This lawsuit supports the leadership of these hunger strikers on the inside.”