U.S. District Court Should Continue to Oversee COVID-19 Hot Spot Mesa Verde ICE Facility, New Documents Show

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SAN FRANCISCO – The U.S. District Court should continue to oversee the embattled Mesa Verde ICE detention facility in Bakersfield, where more than half of detainees and at least one-quarter of the staff were infected with COVID-19 in July and August, according to a pleading filed Tuesday evening.

The filing charged that ICE and other officials misled the court, and increased the risk of virus transmission, including ignoring CDC protocols.

District Court intervened in August and ordered no new detainees should be “introduced,” and ordered weekly testing of staff and detainees. Now ICE has asked the court to lift these restrictions.

An evidentiary hearing in the matter is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 16 before Federal District Court Judge Vince Chhabria in the Northern District of California, where ICE officials will testify under oath. Among those expected to testify are ICE Deputy Field Office Director Erik Bonnar and Acting Deputy Field Office Director Moises Becerra.

“The Trump Administration has repeatedly downplayed the dangers of COVID-19, which has put millions of lives at risk,” said Bree Bernwanger, senior staff attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “This same callousness was on full display here. Now more than ever it is clear that we cannot trust ICE to protect people in its custody.”

According to a statement released by lawyers for the plaintiffs/detainees, “After refusing to test detained immigrants for months because of a lack of space to house positives, ICE did so feverishly in fear of a restraining order. On Aug. 4, ICE asked for testing to be completed ‘urgently.’ Onsite medical staff responded: ‘I just stayed and tested them all because they said a lawyer was going to put a restraining order on us.’ “

“These documents show that high level ICE officials were fully aware that their facilities were a powder keg for COVID infection. They knew what needed to be done to avoid an outbreak,” said Emi MacLean, Deputy Public Defender at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. “Not only did they fail to take steps to avoid an outbreak, they made it worse and misled the public about what they were doing.”

The new documents in the pleading noted ICE officials:

  • “Waited four days to offer testing to a dorm exposed to an individual who had tested positive. Despite having tests on-site that produce rapid results, they refused to use them. Test results took two weeks to return. In the meantime, they crammed over 50 people who had been exposed to COVID into a single dorm. By the time they did, 90% of a combined dorm had become infected.”
  • “Compromised medical standards and knowingly left people with COVID symptoms in a crowded dorm where social distancing was impossible after the outbreak started. Tests would later reveal that everyone who had been identified as symptomatic was already infected with COVID at that time.”
  • “Misrepresented to the court the distance between bunk beds in its facility to support a claim that they allowed for adequate social distance when they did not.”
  • “Intentionally downplayed risk factors and symptoms to avoid testing. ICE tested zero detainees for COVID symptoms before July 29 – the day the outbreak started, and (i)gnored the growing threat of staff

“That ICE and GEO knowingly exposed immigrant detainees to such an unreasonable risk of harm is both inexcusable and illegal,” said Sean Riordan, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California.

Plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU of Northern and Southern California, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Lakin & Wille LLP, and Cooley LLP.


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