By Linh Nguyen
CALIFORNIA — On Apr. 6, 2020, Assemblymember Rob Bonta from Oakland and 25 other assemblymembers and senators across California sent a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom, urging him to issue executive orders to protect the health, safety and legal rights of people detained in immigration detention facilities in California during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The letter addressed that the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in a California immigration detention facility was reported on Mar. 31, 2020, in which an employee at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego tested positive. More recently, a detainee and another employee also tested positive. On any given day, there are 5600 individuals in detention in California and thousands that cycle through the system every year.
The letter stated, “In light of the unprecedented situation we now face, we urge your office to protect the health, safety and legal rights of those detained in California.”
Bonta and his co-signers requested that the governor issue two executive orders. The first requires all detention facilities to “abide by the minimum standards of care enumerated in their private contracts.” Furthermore, as per the request, violation of the standards would result in civil action.
The second request is that the governor issue an executive order that would “extend protection for access to courts and counsel already in existence under Title 15 Minimum Standards for Local Detention Facilities, to all private civil detention facilities.” In addition, the executive order would provide “non-profit legal service providers emergency resources to coordinate the mass representation of individuals in these facilities who are eligible for release.”
Bonta believes that these two executive orders will “allow California to continue to protect its residents, ensure human rights, and prevent a catastrophe in immigration detention facilities.”
The main concern is that 80 percent of detention facilities operate under private ownership and are not subject to public government oversight. Last year, the California legislature passed AB 32, a bill authored by Bonta that became law and banned the use of for-profit private prisons and detention centers for prison housing available to incarcerated people. However, private prison companies still operate four out of the five immigration detention facilities in California. This has led to significant human rights violations and medical care neglect.
“Immigrant detention facilities operate under a subpar inspections regime, particularly when a private operator is involved,” Bonta wrote. “The lack of accountability with respect to oversight and conditions in these facilities is the result of an inadequate inspection and compliance scheme.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sets specific condition standards in their detention contracts. These standards are often violated due to indifference. Violations are a major impediment to human rights and can result in death. Thus far, ICE has failed to “exercise discretion” in releasing individuals from detention facilities.
During the crisis, ICE is still performing raids while considering the release of nonviolent detainees.
Bonta asserts that the state should provide funding to support emergency efforts. This includes funding to provide “pro bono legal screenings and consultations in detention facilities,” which will “allow attorneys to identify possible options for legal relief and release from detention.” Bonta believes that increasing access to counsel is essential during this time for the population of detainees.
The second item that funding should go toward is coordinated referrals and data sharing between service providers in various regions of the state, which will “facilitate a more robust effort to address this emergency situation.”
Lastly, the letter details that funding should be provided for partnerships with community organizations to “coordinate bond payments, post assistance and ongoing legal support [allowing] individuals to be safely reunited with family.”
In the conclusion of the letter, Bonta asserted that these orders “will not only serve as a viable and humanitarian solution to an evolving crisis but will save lives and reunite families in California, particularly at a time where families need to find safety together.”
Governor Gavin Newsom has yet to publicly respond to this letter.
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