Court Finds Likely Constitutional Violation in ICE’S Detention of Immigrants in Two Cramped Detention Centers during Pandemic

Order Establishes Process for Court to Consider Releases of Detainees

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

April 29, 2020

MEDIA CONTACTS: 

San Francisco Public Defenders, Valerie Ibarra, valerie.ibarra@sfgov.org, 628-249-7946 

ACLU SoCal Communications & Media Advocacy, communications@aclusocal.org, 626-755-4129 (cell)

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, mconleybuchsieb@lccrsf, (415) 500-5229 (cell)

SAN FRANCISCO — In an emergency order, a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order in response to a challenge by immigrants detained at two California immigration detention centers where conditions are rife for the spread of COVID-19. 

The centers, used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain immigrants, are the Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield and the Yuba County Jail in Marysville, which together currently hold approximately 400 detainees. 

The judge ordered a review process to identify people for release in order to enable social distancing inside the centers. 

“Time is of the essence,” said Judge Vince Chhabria of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco on this order. “The plaintiffs have demonstrated an exceedingly strong likelihood that they will prevail on their claim that current conditions at the facilities violate class members’ due process rights by unreasonably exposing them to a significant risk of harm.” 

Immigrants at both of these facilities sleep in packed dormitory rooms on bunk beds bolted to the floor only a few feet from each other. They use shared bathrooms, shoulder to shoulder with someone at the next sink and arms length from the next stall. They line up to get meals in crowded cafeterias, and are not provided resources for adequate sanitation and hygiene.

Detainees at Mesa Verde held a recent hunger strike challenging their continued detention in unsafe conditions amid this pandemic.

The order recognized that “the conditions of confinement do not merely threaten detainees; they also threaten facility staff, not to mention the greater community whose health is put at risk by the congregation of large groups in cramped spaces.”

Lawrence Mwuara, a 27-year-old citizen of Kenya and long-time U.S. resident who is detained at Yuba County Jail despite medical conditions which make him vulnerable to severe COVID-19, said in a declaration to the court, “My worst fear about staying in detention during COVID-19 is dying among strangers. 

“I imagine Yuba officials having to contact my family because I have died from COVID-19. Being unable to protect myself from infection here, especially because of my medical conditions, makes me feel like nothing—like dirt.”

The judge provisionally certified a class of all immigration detainees in the two facilities. And he ordered ICE to provide information to the court about detained immigrants to allow for the review of their custody.

“ICE’s failure thus far to respond meaningfully to the crisis despite the wave of court rulings from around the country documenting the agency’s inaction,” the judge said in his ruling. He excoriated ICE for failing to have even a list of medically vulnerable people in detention six weeks after Governor Gavin Newsom shut down the state in light of the health risks of COVID-19.

This is the first class action in California challenging conditions of detention filed on behalf of everyone detained at these two facilities. 

A coalition of legal organizations is representing the plaintiffs, including the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundations of Northern California and Southern California, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCR), and the law firms of Lakin & Wille LLP and Cooley LLP. 

Read the order here: https://www.aclusocal.org/sites/default/files/zepeda_rivas_20200429_tro_order.pdf

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