Protesters hold signs outside the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield on June 4, 2020 (Courtesy of Tania Bernal)
Half of the men locked up at a for-profit detention center in Bakersfield have been confirmed with COVID-19, after a federal judge ordered U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to test all detainees — at least weekly — at the facility.
The rapidly growing outbreak at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center now includes 56 detainees, up from 10 confirmed cases as of early last week, according to court documents submitted Monday by federal authorities.
One detainee is currently hospitalized with severe COVID-19 symptoms , while the rest of those who tested positive are quarantined in a dorm at the facility, which is owned and operated by the Florida-based company, The GEO Group.
Currently, 106 men are being held at Mesa Verde, which has 400 beds.
“We are really scared that we will never return to our families outside,” said Hugo Lucas, a detainee at Mesa Verde, in a statement. So far, he’s tested negative for the coronavirus.
On Aug. 6, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria ordered ICE and GEO to test weekly all detainees at the facility, and to temporarily stop admitting new intakes.
The federal court in San Francisco became one of the first in the country to order routine testing of detainees for COVID-19.
Chhabria intervened after ICE emails in May — unearthed during litigation — showed immigration officials opposed widespread testing for the coronavirus at Mesa Verde. ICE field office director David Jennings, who oversees the facility, said at the time they had no place to segregate detainees who refused testing or were confirmed positive.
“The testing in Mesa Verde through this court’s intervention is a key difference between Mesa Verde and other detention centers in the country,” said Bree Bernwanger, with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, who represents detainees in the case. “It’s not only the social distancing that is now facilitated, but the fact that their status is being monitored … that’s just not happening elsewhere.”
Last week, as COVID-19 cases grew, Chhabria expanded his directive to include regular testing for about 130 staffers, such as guards and health care providers, who come in and out of the facility. The judge cited the high risk of virus transmission between the detention center and the surrounding community.
Since then, two staffers with GEO were confirmed with COVID-19. An additional 29, who sought testing on their own, have also been diagnosed with the coronavirus since mid-June, including some who already recovered and were cleared to work, said GEO attorney Susan Coleman, during a hearing Tuesday morning with Chhabria.
Chhabria also ordered rapid, point-of-care testing — instead of tests that must be sent to a lab — for dozens of detainees who had not yet been confirmed with the coronavirus as of late last week, to try to contain the outbreak.
Court documents show the ICE office in Bakersfield received enough rapid test kits for all detainees at Mesa Verde as of Aug. 7, about a week after the first two men held at the facility were diagnosed with COVID-19.
But immigration officials opted for slower testing that did not provide results for days, said Emi MacLean, a plaintiff lawyer with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. The delay meant people who later were confirmed with COVID-19 slept in dorms with dozens of others, she added.
“They made all of these excuses about why they couldn't use them, that it was too burdensome for their health care staff,” MacLean said. “If that is not a sign of callous disregard for the lives of people in their custody, I don’t know what is.”
An ICE spokesman declined to comment “due to pending litigation.” GEO also declined to provide more information.
Chhabria’s orders are in response to a lawsuit by detainees at Mesa Verde and another detention center north of Sacramento that was filed in April. Detainees argued the crowded jail-like facilities didn’t allow for social distancing.
Since then, the judge has ordered more than 130 people released from Mesa Verde, while ICE has opted to let out dozens more after reviewing their criminal and immigration histories.
A similar lawsuit targeting California’s largest detention center in Adelanto, which is also owned and operated by GEO, has resulted in a federal court in Los Angeles ordering ICE to release at least 17 people so far, said Ahilan Arulanantham, an ACLU attorney in that case.
But that court has not yet directed ICE to conduct widespread testing for COVID-19 at the facility, which has about 800 detainees, he said.
"What has happened at Mesa Verde shows that, ultimately, there is no safe way to continue to imprison a large number of immigrants in the conditions that ICE puts them in," Arulanantham said. "It worries me that the same undetected spread could already be happening in Adelanto and other places where no widespread testing has occurred."