‘Groundbreaking’ Settlement in ICE Immigrant Case – Government, Contractor Must Provide COVID-19 Protections in CA Detention Facilities, Limit Re-Detention

Josh Dawsey/The Washington Post via AP, Pool

By The Vanguard Staff

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — In what lawyers representing immigrants detained by ICE in two California facilities during the COVID-19 crisis are calling a “groundbreaking” settlement Thursday, ICE and private contractor GEO must continue safety measures for those still in detainment, and limit those they want to re-detain.

The long-running class action lawsuit that was filed in April 2020 challenged the unsafe conditions for immigrants in custody at the two detention facilities, Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield and Yuba County Jail.

“Documents and testimony uncovered during the lawsuit revealed that ICE and GEO delayed testing during an outbreak, knowingly left people with COVID symptoms in a crowded dormitory, and made repeated misrepresentations to the court regarding their COVID response,” according to a statement released lawyers Thursday.

San Francisco U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria stated that “the conduct of the key ICE and GEO officials in charge of operations” was “appalling.”

His rulings led to the release of hundreds of detainees that ICE now wants to re-detain. The settlement prevents that, according to lawyers for the immigrants.

The plaintiffs in Zepeda Rivas v. Jennings Thursday presented the settlement agreement to Judge Chhabria of the U.S. District Court of Northern California for preliminary approval.

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

“This groundbreaking settlement is the product of tremendous bravery and perseverance from everyone involved, especially those trapped inside,” said Mano Raju, San Francisco Public Defender. “While the fight is not over, this settlement takes us one step closer to ending the inhumane practice of immigration detention.”

“When we filed this lawsuit, ICE had put our clients and communities at risk by detaining as many people as possible in filthy, crowded dorms and cells, creating a tinderbox for COVID-19,” said Bree Bernwanger, senior staff attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Bernwanger explained that as a “result of litigation and related organizing efforts, the population in custody at these two facilities dropped from 462 to 62. The settlement agreement provides strong protections against re-detention for the approximately 250 immigrants released from custody as a result of the lawsuit.”

Bernwanger added, “The settlement agreement also provides three years of health and safety protections for those remaining in custody. This includes a temporary population cap and ongoing population limits to allow for social distancing; testing and vaccination mandates for staff and people in custody; the release of vulnerable people; and compliance with CDC guidance.”

“This settlement mandates important, potentially life-saving measures that will reduce the spread of COVID in ICE detention centers, and also limits the number of people in custody in these facilities during this pandemic,” said Sean Riordan, senior staff attorney for the immigrants’ rights program at the ACLU of Northern California.

Riordan added, “During this dangerous pandemic, ICE officials should be doing everything possible to release people from detention facilities.”

“When COVID hit, I was terrified because the government was crowding so many of us together in such a dangerous place and not doing anything at all to protect us from the virus,” said Brenda Ruiz Tovar, one of the plaintiffs in the case who was released from custody as a result of the lawsuit.

Tovar added, “I am so grateful to have been free for almost two years, and able to support my son and my family and stay healthy. Because of my release, I completed school and now work as a dental assistant. Still, I think every day about the people who are still locked up in that place. I’m happy that the settlement makes conditions safer, but I cannot accept that the government is still detaining people like me unnecessarily during a dangerous pandemic.”

“This settlement is the result of years of hard-fought litigation to protect human beings from unconstitutional practices,” said Martin Schenker, partner at Cooley LLP. “Today’s settlement is a victory for the rights of detained people and the rule of law. It holds ICE and its private-prison contractor accountable for their conduct.”

“We are humbled to stand alongside our class members as they continue their tremendous fight for the right to be safe and with their loved ones,” said Judah Lakin, Partner at Lakin & Wille LLP. “We will continue to fight to end immigration detention completely as it is unnecessary and cruel as this pandemic has undoubtedly shown.”


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