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Senators Want to Know if ICE Detainees Were Pepper Sprayed After Requesting Masks

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Otay Mesa Detention Center, where 17 detainees and 14 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, more than at any other immigration detention facility in the country. (Courtesy of CoreCivic)

Both U.S. senators from California are calling for an investigation into reports that detained women at a federal immigration facility in San Diego were pepper sprayed and handcuffed by guards after demanding protective masks.

Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris sent a letter Wednesday asking the U.S. Department of Homeland Security inspector general to look into “alarming reports of conduct by staff” during a recent incident at the Otay Mesa Detention Center.

The allegation comes amid mounting calls by public officials and advocates to release people from federal immigration detention facilities during the coronavirus pandemic to stem further spread of the disease.

Seventeen detainees at the Otay Mesa facility have already tested positive for COVID-19, along with 14 staff members from both U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and private prison operator CoreCivic — far more cases than at any other ICE facility.

They are among 100 inmates and 25 employees at two dozen ICE facilities nationwide who have contracted the virus, ICE reported Thursday. No other ICE detention center in California has so far reported cases, although immigration lawyers say that few detainees are being tested for the coronavirus.

In their letter to DHS Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari, Feinstein and Harris — along with Democratic Rep. Juan Vargas whose district includes Otay Mesa — requested an immediate investigation into the April 10 incident, which reportedly began when guards told detainees they would have to sign documents in English in order to receive masks to protect against COVID-19.

“People are fearful during this time, particularly those in U.S. custody who are especially vulnerable to infection but face limited access to information about how to protect themselves, limited ability to observe protective measures like social distancing and limited language access services,” the three lawmakers wrote.

“These allegations are all the more troubling in light of your office’s consistent findings during the course of over two years that ICE has failed to adequately protect the health and safety of individuals in its custody."

San Diego immigrant advocates told KQED that the Otay Mesa incident allegedly began after some female detainees cut up T-shirts to use as improvised masks and were then told by guards that they would have to sign liability release forms if they wanted real masks.

The form was provided in English only, and when one person translated its meaning, the women refused to sign, according to attorney Ian Seruelo, who represents one of the women, a Mexican asylum-seeker who has been detained for more than six months. Seruelo said his client told him a commotion ensued.

“That’s when they called in the male, stronger guards and pepper sprayed them,” said Seruelo. “[My client] said she was able to cover her face. She was handcuffed and taken to isolation. She saw two others handcuffed as well.”

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Audio of the incident was also captured in a phone call recorded on April 10 by a volunteer with Pueblos Sin Fronteras, an immigration rights group, who was speaking with a detainee as the situation escalated.

On the recording, which was posted on Facebook, one of the women in Spanish says, “Please help us get out! They’re spraying pepper spray into the cells.”

Shortly after, she says, “They’re taking people out of the cells in handcuffs,” and then begins to shriek.

CoreCivic, the private prison operator that runs Otay Mesa under contract with ICE, denied that staff used force, and said in a statement, “regarding the pepper spray claim, those allegations are patently false.”

“The temporary removal of three detainees from one of the pods was in direct response to their being disruptive during the issuance of the face masks,” wrote Amanda Gilchrist, CoreCivic’s public affairs director. “At no time was any force used to remove these individuals, and they were returned to the pod a short while later.”

Gilchrist added that no signed waiver will be required to receive a mask, and that all detainees have been issued face masks. In her statement, she also said that CoreCivic is working with ICE medical staff to screen employees, disinfect surfaces, encourage social distancing and hand-washing and quarantine sick detainees and people they’ve had contact with.

But the company’s quarantine approach has raised concerns for another immigrant advocate. Attorney Dulce Garcia, executive director of the group Border Angels, said she’s been trying to post a bond for an asylum-seeker who has been approved for release but said officials told her he had to stay in his quarantined unit for 14 days, even though he’s not sick and hasn’t been tested for COVID-19.

“No one can get out of the cohort,” said Garcia. “Today we received notice that they moved someone who tested positive and had a fever last week into the cohort. Every time they put a new person in, the clock starts again. How will they ever get out?”

Garcia said her client has family in the U.S. with a home where he would be able to isolate himself upon his release. For now, she said, he is stuck in a unit with about 100 men sleeping in eight-person bunk rooms, eating together and sharing bathrooms.

“He’s afraid he’s going to die there,” said Garcia. “He’s desperate. He doesn't know how to distance himself and he’s afraid everyone is going to give it to him.”

CoreCivic confirmed that housing pods at Otay Mesa with positive cases are under quarantine, and said “high-medical-risk detainees” are being separated. Gilchrist, the company spokeswoman, referred KQED to ICE for further comment, but they agency did not respond by press time.

ICE has reduced the number of people in custody nationally, from more than 38,000 three weeks ago to a total of just over 32,000 as of Saturday. There were 3,402 people in ICE’s four California detention facilities as of March 28, the most recent data available.

“Due to the unprecedented nature of COVID-19, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is reviewing cases of individuals in detention who may be vulnerable to the virus. Utilizing CDC guidance along with the advice of medical professionals, ICE may place individuals in a number of alternatives to detention options,” ICE said in a statement released by spokeswoman Paige Hughes.

Officials said they’ve released almost 700 medically-vulnerable immigrants, including pregnant women and people over 60.

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Many of these releases have been ordered by courts responding to a series of lawsuits filed in recent week by advocates around the country. Federal judges in California have ordered the release of at least 10 ICE detainees. Courts have made similar rulings in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, and other cases are pending.

Some elected officials — including Harris and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra — are asking ICE to go further and release detainees who pose no threat to public safety. And this week, Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, introduced a bill to move most inmates out of ICE detention and suspend most immigration enforcement during the current pandemic and future public health emergencies.

People in ICE custody are not serving criminal sentences; they are being held in administrative detention while awaiting hearings in immigration court. The detained population has swelled under President Trump, reaching more than 52,000 last spring.

Meanwhile lawyers for immigrants at Otay Mesa and other detention centers, including the large Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility in Bakersfield, say their clients have launched hunger strikes to push for release or at least better protection.

In a recording made Saturday and obtained by KQED, Pablo Ramirez, a detained man at Mesa Verde, said he and others had started a hunger strike the day before.

“There’s virus in here. We have a feeling it might get in here,” said Ramirez. “They’re not treating us with the medical care that we need. They don’t test us for anything. They say they screen, but they don’t even take our temperatures.”

Susan Beaty, a lawyer with Oakland’s Centro Legal de la Raza, who is in touch with detained immigrants at Mesa Verde, said detainees there gave up their hunger strike after guards threatened to deny them access to the commissary, where they buy soap.

Seruelo, the San Diego immigration attorney, said he knew about 20 men at Otay Mesa who had started a hunger strike in early April to protest conditions during the outbreak. But he said most discontinued it after being placed in solitary confinement.

Meanwhile, he continues to push for the release of his client, the woman he said was pepper sprayed. The woman does not have any record of violence, he said, stressing that practically everyone released with an electronic ankle monitor shows up for court. He said his third request for her release, sent two weeks ago, has so far gone unanswered.

“ICE should really move quickly. It’s a very dangerous strain of virus,” said Seruelo. “I don’t understand why they are taking so much risk when we are talking about human lives here.”

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