'People Are Terrified': SF Judge Orders COVID-19 Testing at ICE Facility

An immigrant walks in chains through a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), processing center In Camarillo, California after being detained on October 14, 2015. (John Moore/Getty Images)

A federal judge in San Francisco ordered immigration authorities Thursday to stop admitting new detainees at a privately run facility in Bakersfield with a growing COVID-19 outbreak, and to administer weekly coronavirus tests to all those held there.

District Judge Vince Chhabria said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and GEO Group Inc., which owns and operates the Mesa Verde detention center, had responded to the coronavirus health crisis “in such a cavalier fashion,” that they couldn’t be trusted to act on their own.

“This conduct by the defendants has put the detainees at serious risk of irreparable harm,” Chhabria wrote in his order. “The defendants have also jeopardized the safety of their own employees. And they have endangered the community at large.”

The judge intervened after immigrants held at Mesa Verde and another detention center north of Sacramento, sued in April to force ICE to release detainees on bond or parole to allow for social distancing at the jail-like facilities, and to implement other changes to protect people who remained in their custody.

Emails between ICE and GEO — recently unearthed during litigation — showed immigration officials avoided widespread testing among detainees and staffers, Chhabria said, out of fear that “positive test results would require them to implement safety measures they apparently felt were not worth the trouble.”

ICE spokesman Jonathan Moore said the agency could not comment due to pending litigation, and referred KQED to more information in ICE’s coronavirus webpage. A spokesperson for GEO responded similarly.

At least nine detainees at Mesa Verde have been diagnosed with COVID-19, including two who were transferred in recent weeks from California state prisons, according to attorneys representing immigrants held at the facility.

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During the pandemic, ICE has continued to bring people from state prisons and local jails with severe COVID-19 outbreaks into Mesa Verde and other facilities, said immigrant advocates and detainees. Most of those transferred were about to be released to the community after serving their sentences when ICE arrested them.

Judge Chhabria’s order halting new intakes at Mesa Verde comes as dozens of state lawmakers and elected officials have called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to stop transfers from state prisons into ICE custody during the pandemic.

Newsom has refused to do so, and his office did not returned a request for comment.

“I hope the governor takes note,” said Susan Beaty, an attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza, who has spoken with dozens of detainees at Mesa Verde in recent weeks. “I hope that he sees that there's a federal judge saying (stopping intakes) is a necessary measure to protect the health of people in Mesa Verde.”

Beaty said that as recently as last week, a man moved to the detention center from Avenal State Prison, which has more than 380 active COVID-19 cases, was not quarantined or tested for the virus before he was placed in a dorm with several of other detainees.

Mesa Verde officials gave the recently arrived detainee a paper mask “with a hole right in front of where his mouth is,” she said, which would not protect him or others.

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For months, the coronavirus has spread rapidly at California state prisons and immigration detention facilities. As of Friday, more than 8,600 people in prisons had been diagnosed with COVID-19, with nearly a thousand detected in the last 14 days, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In addition, nearly 2,000 prison employees had tested positive.

ICE reported close to 4,200 detainees and 45 employees have been confirmed with COVID-19 at detention centers nationwide. Several more workers at privately run detention facilities may also have had the coronavirus, but the agency does not include them in their tally of employees with positive COVID-19 cases.

At Mesa Verde, 14 workers at the for-profit GEO Group have tested positive, said Emi MacLean, a plaintiff attorney with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office in the case being considered by Chhabria, Zepeda Rivas v. Jennings. GEO did not return a request for confirmation.

MacLean said Chhabria’s most recent order was, while very important, a “stopgap measure” because social distancing remains impossible for detainees sleeping in dorms with dozens others.

“There are still people in the facility who are in a highly risky condition and who should be released,” MacLean said. “People are terrified. There are individuals who have called crying, saying, ‘I am afraid that the only way out of Mesa Verde is going to be in a body bag.’ ”

MacLean said the facility held nearly 300 people back in April, when detainees sued ICE and GEO Group. Since then, Chhabria has ordered the release of about 130 individuals, while ICE let out dozens more at high risk of severe illness.

As part of its response to the pandemic, ICE has tested nearly 21,100 detainees and released more than 900 people nationwide after reviewing their immigration history, criminal record and other factors, according to the agency.

About 120 people remain at Mesa Verde. Just hours after Chhabria’s directive, detainees said two of those confirmed with COVID-19 had been hospitalized — including an elderly disabled man who was still in the ER and another man who they said was brought back to the facility and left gravely ill for hours in solitary confinement.

“Dozens of people in our dorms are showing symptoms of COVID-19, and are desperate for care,” said the detainees in a written statement. “It takes days to see a doctor, and even then, they often just give us Tylenol and send us back to our dorms. We had to fight hard to get tested for COVID-19, and most of us still do not know our status.”

In March, ICE told KQED it was ready to handle potential COVID-19 outbreaks at immigration detention facilities, including by isolating those who showed symptoms or were confirmed with the virus.

But in an email from May 27, the ICE field office director in San Francisco, David Jennings, seemed to oppose a plan for widespread testing at Mesa Verde because it would cause logistical problems.

“We have some concerns about being a test place,” Jennings wrote to ICE official Russell Hott in Washington, D.C. “In short, we have no place to cohort anyone who refuses, is positive, etc.”