Half of ICE Facility Detainees Test Positive for COVID-19 after Federal Judge Orders Tests


By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

SAN FRANCISCO – The Vanguard has learned that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been ordered – in a late Friday emergency ruling here by U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria – to test all detainees and the staff at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center for COVID-19.

Shockingly, of the 104 detained people at the facility, at least 54 tested positive for the virus by end of testing Saturday, according to a statement released by 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.

The groups filed a lawsuit against ICE April 20 that led to two-thirds of the Mesa Verde facility in Bakersfield, but claim now that conditions have only gotten worse for those remaining.

In a request filed Friday for “emergency relief,” the groups said, “Mesa Verde is in crisis. This crisis was borne from the inaction, negligence, and indifference of Defendants. And additional steps must be taken immediately to mitigate this unfolding disaster.” https://www.aclusocal.org/sites/default/files/dkt._551_emergency_status_report.pdf

“This is precisely why we’ve been fighting so hard to release people from custody. People who continue to be held inside congregate spaces like prisons and detention centers in California are in serious risk of contracting this devastating illness, as are their communities,” said Mano Raju, the San Francisco Public Defender.

The judge responded to the emergency order quickly Friday, ruling in an oral order, “I’m ordering that it be done immediately…and nobody stop working until they’re completed.”

Citing the “deliberate indifference” of ICE and private company GEO Group, Inc. that manages the facility, the judge acknowledged, “There’s no question that this outbreak could have been avoided.”

The facility was ordered to use rapid testing that provides almost immediate results, after the detainee lawyers charge documents reveal that although ICE has those tests, it has refused to use them, and are using to instead give tests that takes days to show results, creating a “highly dangerous” situation where those who ultimately test positive are mixed with other detainees.

Several dozen detainees allegedly did not choose to be tested, according to Mesa Verde, but a cursory investigation found that many did not hear the announcement, which had been given when they were sleeping or in the shower. Counsel said, now that they have contacted them, they desire the virus tests.

”The current crisis at Mesa Verde is not a result of the refusal of class members to be tested. In fact, it appears that what Defendants are calling ‘refusals’ result from a variety of factors, including lax procedures, a cavalier attitude on the part of the persons offering the tests, and general mistrust of ICE—which is understandable in light of the lack of accurate information and significant delays in providing results,” said the lawyers for the detainees.

Chhabria’s order includes the roughly 140 staff members at the facility. They are supposed to be tested immediately, at the start of their next shift, and then weekly.

The lawyer groups said documents filed in the case showed that ICE intentionally did not test staff for months to avoid impeding immigration enforcement.

“The situation for those at Mesa Verde is dire. There is no other way to say this: we are in crisis,” said Emi MacLean, a deputy public defender at the San Francisco Office of the Public Defender. “And ICE is clearly unwilling or unable to do what needs to be done to protect people in its custody from the threat of a deadly pandemic.”

“If ICE and GEO can’t guarantee the basic safety of the people in their custody, through regular testing and adequate medical care, we need to consider whether they should be allowed to detain anyone at all,” said ACLU NorCal Senior Staff Attorney Sean Riordan.

“As the Court rightly recognized, ICE and GEO cannot be trusted to protect the health and lives of detained immigrants,” said Bree Bernwanger of the LCCR. “ICE continues to detain people during a deadly pandemic, yet has repeatedly refused to take even basic measures to protect their lives.”

“We are really scared that we will never return to our families outside,” said Hugo Lucas, who is currently detained at Mesa Verde. “I have my daughter who is 14 years old, and I can’t tell her what’s going on because I’m too scared for her.”

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About The Author

Veteran news reporter and editor, including stints at the Sacramento Bee, Woodland Democrat, and Vietnam war correspondent and wire service bureau chief at the State Capitol.

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