SAN FRANCISCO – In what lawyers for detainees at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center call a “blistering” order, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California verbally castigated ICE and the private GEO Group, Inc., which operates the facility, for “dangerous inactions” and making “false statements” about a major COVID-19 outbreak at the facility.
“There is still more evidence in the record—evidence that was not available at the time of the prior rulings—that confirms the defendants’ (ICE and GEO)deliberate indifference to the safety of the detainees,” said federal Judge Vince Chhabria, who noted that ICE and GEO were “aware from early on they needed to crate a plan to deal with a possible (virus) outbreak.
“(T)he defendants cannot be trusted on their own to provide reasonably safe conditions to detainees at Mesa Verde,” the judge added, while ordering that the current court oversight continue to limit the spread of the virus.
ICE and GEO had sought to have the oversight end – it includes a ban on new detainees and other measures to minimize COVID-19 – but after parts of several weeks of hearings, Chhabria ruled the oversight order should continue.
His 26-page order was blunt.
“From the start of the public health crisis until now, the conduct of the key ICE and GEO officials in charge of operations at Mesa Verde has been appalling. These officials knew that they needed a clear and detailed plan to minimize the risk of an outbreak (and to contain an outbreak if one occurred), but nine months later they still have not created one,” said the judge.
”They deliberately avoided testing detainees and staff for fear that the results would require them to take expensive and logistically challenging safety measures. They failed to address the safety concerns created by Mesa Verde’s unique layout, which makes it far more dangerous from a contagion standpoint than the typical jail or prison. They opposed bail for detainees on a blanket basis—even for those who clearly posed no danger to the community and were obviously not a flight risk.
”They gave false testimony several times in these court proceedings, on matters of importance. And at least one ICE official with significant decision-making authority over Mesa Verde obstructed the proceedings by effectively refusing to answer, during his deposition, even the most basic questions about ICE’s response to the pandemic,” he added.
According to the lawyers for detainees, the testing delays were “a major factor in Mesa Verde being a tinderbox for the spread of the virus. At the height of the outbreak, the judge noted, 57 of 103 people detained at Mesa Verde tested positive. Nearly one-third of the facility’s staff members have also been infected, including 15 infected in the past two weeks, according to court documents.”
The people imprisoned in the facility were represented by legal teams from the American Civil Liberties Union Foundations of Northern and Southern California, the San Francisco Office of the Public Defender, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of San Francisco Bay Area, and the law firms Lakin & Wille LLP and Cooley LLP.
The judge rejected ICE’s request to loosen restrictions he previously placed on Mesa Verde, maintaining requirements for weekly COVID testing for all people detained there and all staff. And the court added new restrictions requested by the detainees’ representatives, including that two dorms be reserved for people who test positive, protective intake procedures, and that the detainee population for each dorm be capped at 26.
“Even with this win in court, the people detained within the walls of Mesa Verde remain gravely concerned about their well-being,” said detainee counsel.
“There is no safe way for ICE to detain people during a pandemic and no justification for doing so,” said Manohar Raju, the elected Public Defender of San Francisco. “It is past time for authorities to prioritize human lives and safety — for the benefit of those in custody as well as surrounding communities.”
“ICE has both refused to keep people safe and repeatedly misrepresented its actions to the court,” said Bree Bernwanger, senior staff attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “The new administration should take heed of the court’s observation that ICE and GEO have lost the right to be trusted.”
“Even as the pandemic spreads to unprecedented levels throughout California, ICE continues to seek a free pass to detain people without even basic protective procedures or oversight,” said Sean Riordan, senior staff attorney at the ACLU NorCal. “By requiring critical protections for those who ICE insists on detaining, the court has sternly rebuked ICE.”
“We don’t feel safe; we all are afraid we will die here,” said Willian Mattias Rauda, detained by ICE since November 2018. “We want to return to our children, our wives, and our communities. We should not be in this dangerous facility.”
Read the court order here.
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