ICE Detainees at Yuba Jail Press for COVID-19 Protections

About 20 ICE detainees at the facility in Marysville came off a six-day hunger strike this week that was meant to call attention to conditions the men say make them vulnerable to the coronavirus. (Courtesy Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP)

Dozens of people held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Yuba County Jail, north of Sacramento, say they are trying to pressure ICE and jail officials to take steps to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.

About 20 ICE detainees at the facility in Marysville came off a six-day hunger strike this week that was meant to call attention to conditions the men say make them vulnerable to the coronavirus.

COVID-19 has so far not been diagnosed in ICE detainees at the Yuba jail. But the virus has swept through two privately run immigration detention centers in California. More than 220 people held at the Otay Mesa facility in San Diego and the Mesa Verde facility in Bakersfield were infected, including dozens who were hospitalized and one man who died from the disease.

On Thursday, one person continued his hunger strike, refusing food for a fifth day, according to the Yuba County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail. That man is Juan Jose Erazo Herrera, 20, an asylum seeker from El Salvador, said Kelly Wells, an attorney with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, who represents him.

“Conditions are awful under normal circumstances, and now they're outrageously abysmal and dangerous for people,” Wells said. “Nobody should be in this facility, much less people who are just awaiting immigration proceedings.”

The Yuba jail began detaining immigrants for the federal government in 1994. The contract generated close to $6 million a year in 2017, funds which support the operations of the Sheriff’s Department.

Immigrants detained at the jail, some of whom said they participated in another hunger strike last month, want ICE and jail officials to regularly test staff members, who go in and out of the facility, for COVID-19.

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They are also requesting a halt to new admissions from other county jails, people who are sometimes housed with ICE detainees.

“We are all scared. Every day we wake up scared thinking that, if one of us gets it, we are all going to get it,” said Eduardo Melendez, 23, who is being held by ICE at the Yuba County Jail. “We might not be able to see our families again.”

At least three staffers at the facility have tested positive for the coronavirus since July, according to court disclosures by ICE officials, said Wells.

A spokeswoman for the Yuba County Sheriff’s Office said she couldn’t confirm whether any employees had been confirmed with COVID-19 because it was a confidential personnel matter.

“The Sheriff’s Department has taken a very proactive approach to mitigation efforts in our Jail related to the pandemic,” said Leslie Carbah, a public information officer with the Sheriff's Office, in a statement. “To date we have not had any County inmates or ICE detainees test positive.”

For most of the pandemic, the Yuba jail continued to receive inmates from state prisons with COVID-19 outbreaks, including two transfers in July from Solano and Pleasant Valley.

But the jail has not accepted any prison transfers this month, and has only taken inmates from other county jails when legally required, Carbah said.

“It is important to know that all new intakes, whether county inmates or detainees, must go through a 14 day quarantine before being housed with the general population,” she said.

The Yuba jail has medical care on-site around the clock, and implements a “thorough daily sanitation and cleaning protocol based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines,” she added.

Yet several immigration detainees told KQED the jail is often filthy, and it can take more than a week to see a nurse or doctor when sick, a complaint echoed by hunger strikers at Yuba in 2019.

Joe Mejia Rosas, 41, was held by ICE at the facility for nearly a year. He said the jail is not prepared to adequately handle a potentially deadly outbreak of the coronavirus.

“It’s true, they have medical care there 24-7. But that doesn't mean we have access to it 24-7,” Mejia Rosas said, who was released in July. “If you are lucky, you’ll get to see a nurse within seven days ... If there's an outbreak, by the time they see the doctor, he's already infected the rest of the pod for seven days.”

Mejia Rosas was one of about 50 ICE detainees who a federal judge ordered freed on bail or parole from the Yuba County Jail during the pandemic. The orders, by U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria, came after immigrants held there and at the Mesa Verde detention center sued to force ICE to make changes to allow for social distancing at the facilities.

Earlier this month, Chhabria ordered ICE and the GEO Group, the prison company that owns Mesa Verde, to regularly test all detainees and employees there for COVID-19. Within weeks, the number of detainees who tested positive grew from nine to 59. At least 28 staffers have also been diagnosed, according to plaintiffs' lawyers in the case.

On Wednesday, the California Legislature approved a bill, Assembly Bill 3228, that would make it easier for individuals to sue for-profit prison companies for breaching required standards of care. The legislation is headed to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.

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Nationwide, nearly 5,000 people in ICE custody have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the agency. An additional 45 employees at detention facilities have also been infected, but that tally does not include staffers at privately run centers.

Just over 21,000 people are currently jailed by ICE across the country, a substantial decline from late March, when about 38,000 immigrants were in custody, pending deportation proceedings.

At a Yuba County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, advocates pleaded with the supervisors to protect the health of people held at the jail and to end the county’s contract with ICE to lock up immigrants.

The Yuba jail is the last public facility in the state to hold such an arrangement.

“Once we all collectively come out of this pandemic, you are going to have to ask yourselves whether you took actions to help save lives,” Juan Prieto, with the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, told the supervisors. “Listen to the hunger strikers. Their demands are for protecting their lives.”

Yuba County Supervisor Gary Bradford, board vice chair, told KQED “no comment” when asked to respond.