By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief
SAN FRANCISCO – ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainee centers in Marysville’s Yuba County Jail and Bakersfield’s Mesa Verde Detention Facility are now being targeted by a class action suit, and a federal court is being asked to immediately release hundreds of immigrants now incarcerated in the county jails.
At a “Zoom” streamed news conference here Tuesday, a coalition of lawyers said they filed the class action because detainees are being held in “fundamentally unsafe conditions which endanger their health and lives in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic.”
The request for a temporary restraining order was filed, along with a class action lawsuit, in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, and if granted would direct ICE to release “a sufficient number of putative class members in order to allow for social distancing” at the two facilities, according to the TRO request.
“Hundreds of lives are at stake. The systemic crisis at Mesa Verde and YCJ must be resolved at a systemic level. And it must be resolved quickly. As of April 17, there have been 124 confirmed COVID-19 cases among ICE detainees nationwide—a jump of over 50 cases from the previous week. This Court should grant a temporary restraining order to implement…expedited release until conditions in Mesa Verde and YCJ can accommodate the required social distancing,” the federal court pleading argues.
More than 400 detainees are being held by ICE and the Yuba County Jail and Mesa Verde in overcrowded and inhumane conditions, according to participants at the news conference – they said it is the first lawsuit ever filed on behalf of all of those detained in the facilities.
“As COVID-19 ravages the country and the world, Plaintiffs are trapped in close quarters in two immigration detention centers, Mesa Verde and YCJ. Plaintiffs spend their days within arm’s reach of one another, share communal bathrooms and showers, and are forced into tightly spaced single-file lines throughout the day,” the federal pleading noted.
“To prevent contracting and spreading COVID-19, the (CDC) has recommended that individuals avoid contact with others and practice social distancing. Yet, Plaintiffs’ continued detention in Mesa Verde and YCJ prevents them from doing exactly what the CDC recommends,” the motion continued.
The filing quoted Brenda Ruiz Tovar, detained at Yuba County Jail.
“Social distancing is impossible here,” said the 31-year-old mother, who said she has prevailed twice in her immigration case, but the U.S. is appealing the decision. “We are crammed together. If there is an outbreak here, we will all catch it.”
And Mesa Verde detainee Javier Alfaro, 39, 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.”
The suit announced Tuesday calls the government’s response “dangerously inadequate.”
“Experts have been warning Defendants that COVID-19 will spread ‘like wildfire’ in congregate settings, like Mesa Verde and YCJ, where people cannot consistently maintain a distance of at least six feet from one another. In other jails and detention center, it has, with deadly results,” said the Plaintiffs’ counsel, adding:
“Defendants have the power to reduce the detained populations at both Mesa Verde and YCJ to sufficiently accommodate consistent, meaningful social distancing. They refuse to do so. Indeed, in recent weeks, Defendants increased the detained immigrant population at YCJ.”
“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 the people detained,” said San Francisco Public Defender Mano 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.”
Immigrants’ lawyers said their request is not unheard of, claiming several judges in the Northern District have ordered ICE to release detainees on “the grounds that their continued detention would violate the Constitution. Plaintiffs here are currently suffering the same constitutional violation that has justified individual release in these cases.”
Charles Joseph, recently released from the Mesa Verde Detention Center after winning a legal challenge – his family held several high profile demonstrations in Sacramento trying to get the Governor to help – said Tuesday it’s a bleak existence for detainees in Bakersfield.
“We’re crammed into the chow halls. We have no masks. They don’t even give us hand sanitizers. They have timers on water faucets. They have not changed anything,” he said, adding that a hunger strike by detainees only ended after the center retaliated, and threatened to take away their ability to buy commissary food. The strike ended when detainees felt it would be too high a price for the most vulnerable among them.
The suit outlined how detainees “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 arm’s length from the next stall. They line up to get meals in crowded cafeterias, and are not provided resources for adequate sanitation and hygiene.”
“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.”
Dr. Nick Nelson, Medical Director of Highland Hospital Human Rights Clinic, said Tuesday that his inspection of the Yuba facility revealed that it was “extremely overcrowded and extremely infectious. The risk is very real, and it’s only a matter of time for an outbreak.”
Other speakers Tuesday rang that same bell.
Barbara Garcia, former Director of Public Health for San Francisco, said by Zoom Tuesday that the “virus is a game changer. Facilities will have to change – many times the staff brings in a virus in locked facilities with large numbers of people. Staff and communities are in danger. It’s important to close these facilities, and put people in hotels.”
Some plaintiffs said they were never told about the virus threat and “only heard about it from television or family members. It was not discussed in the jail,” said Emi MacLean, Attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.
“Detainees are never tested for COVID-19. There’s no evidence anyone has been tested at the two centers,” she said, adding that “one-third of those that have been tested in other ICE facilities test positive. The courts must intervene and protect the safety of the detainees and public.”
Guadalupe Medina, an English high school teacher and daughter of Salomón Medina Calderón, formerly detained by ICE at Yuba County Jail, said at the Tuesday press conference that when her father was there it was “hopeless times.”
“He experienced horrible things. It was so inhumane. (The jail) exposed them to COVID-19 and medical help was not given,” she said, adding “We need to seek release of all detainees. My father maintains his bond with them and is working for them.”
The TRO request spoke to the unsanitary conditions at the facilities.
“Plaintiffs are paid $1 per day to clean their dorms and the bathrooms they share with up to 99 other detainees for themselves, using only a mop, gloves, and cleaning solution. One individual describes that everyone in his dorm must ‘use and re-use the same little towel over and over again to dry [their] hands or wipe surfaces, and it smells and is unsanitary.’
“At YCJ, the solitary bathroom in the yard is ‘disgusting’…clothes often come back from laundry with a foul smell (and) detainees without protective gear were forced to clean up after a visibly ill woman was removed from a dorm in which she languished for days,” according to the motion, adding that “Defendants have continued to introduce new detainees into the ghastly existing conditions at Mesa Verde and YCJ, including people transferred from facilities with known COVID-19 cases.”
“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.”
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.
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