By Esha Kher
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – The American Civil Liberties Union appealed to the Department of Homeland Security Wednesday to close 39 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities nationwide, including six in California.
Among the facilities identified for closure in California, are the Yuba County jail and Mesa Verde Detention facilities that have been racked up with litigation during the COVID-19 outbreak.
In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the ACLU called on the Biden administration to shut down the facilities because of documented reports of abuse against detainees, inadequate access to medical care and insufficient justification for keeping them open.
Maria Romani, Immigrants’ Rights Policy Attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California maintains not only is the immigrant detention system “cruel and unnecessary” but also is the “first step in decreasing the incarceration and criminalization of immigrant communities.”
In the letter, the ACLU highlights that the time is ripe to end this unnecessary system as ICE arrest rates dropped to rates lower than we’ve seen in two decades.
“Nationwide, roughly 14,000 people are detained on an average day—just a quarter of the people who were detained at the peak in 2019,” read the letter, noting not only have arrest rates dropped, but COVID-19 related litigation, advocacy, and the shutdown of asylum under the Trump administration have led to an increase in releases.
“In 2020, the litigation brought by the three California ACLU affiliates—Northern California, Southern California, and San Diego—resulted in the release of over 500 people from immigration detention across the state,” the ACLU said.
The letter further emphasizes that as a result of the low number of detained people, ICE is wasting incredible amounts of money on guaranteed minimum bed space that isn’t being used.
“Closing detention sites should be a no-brainer. Millions of taxpayer dollars are being wasted to maintain thousands of empty beds and keep asylum seekers and immigrants in inhumane and life-threatening conditions,” said Naureen Shah, Senior Advocacy and Policy Counsel at the ACLU.
The ACLU letter urged Mayorkas to take advantage of “the historically low number of people in ICE detention” to downscale immigration detention.
“President Biden has a unique moment to shrink the infrastructure that’s been used to abuse and traumatize immigrants for decades,” said Shah.
The ACLU noted the abuse and trauma and the proliferation of reports of abuse against detainees in 2020-the deadliest year in ICE detention in 15 years, charging, “We saw reports of increased use of force, solitary confinement, patterns of sexual abuse, forced sterilization, and an utter failure to protect people from COVID-19.”
The documentation of these patterns of abuse, mistreatment and misconduct were only possible due to the increased scrutiny brought upon it by COVID-19, the letter added.
“ICE’s extreme recklessness in handling the COVID-19 virus showed the blatant disregard it had for the health and wellbeing of detained people, as well as the extent to which it was willing to lie or obfuscate to avoid accountability,” said the ACLU letter.
California’s Yuba County Jail and Mesa Verde Detention Facility have been hotspots.
“The ACLU Foundation of Northern California and community partners, which filed a class action lawsuit against ICE last year in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California for exposing detainees to unreasonable risks of infection and death from COVID-19,” said the ACLU.
The Yuba county Jail has been under a court order to improve its medical care for 40 years, and with the emergence of COVID-19 conditions have deteriorated.
“In 2019, detained people at Yuba County reported unsanitary conditions, lack of medical care, and cells without running water or light. By January 2021, around half of people detained in the jail had been infected with COVID-19,” pointed out the ACLU.
The Mesa Verde Detention Facility has not complied with around more than a dozen detention standards by ICE’s Office of Detention Oversight.
“[the standards included] sexual assault prevention, use of force, food service, and medical care. During the COVID-19 pandemic, ICE and GEO Group also allowed a massive outbreak to spread at the facility by refusing to test the population there and by comingling infected and non-infected people,” according to the letter.
This renewed push by the ACLU hopes to guide the administration to deliver on its campaign promises.
“The Biden administration was elected with a mandate to fix our broken immigration system, and immigrant detention is an early test of its resolve,” said Shah, adding “The ACLU’s list is intended as a starting point for the administration to begin ending the mass criminalization and default incarceration of immigrant communities.”
Esha Kher is an undergraduate student at UC Davis studying Political Science and Computer Science hoping to pursue a career in corporate law. She is passionate about legal journalism and political advocacy that provokes new perspectives and sparks conversation among the public.
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