A small group of protesters gather in front of ICE's offices in downtown San Francisco on Dec. 15, 2021, calling on the agency to terminate its immigrant-detention contract with Yuba County Jail. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)
Chanting, “Shut it down! Shut it down!,” more than a dozen protesters gathered this week in downtown San Francisco to demand the Biden administration permanently stop detaining immigrants at a county jail north of Sacramento that they say has a long history of dangerous confinement conditions.
Yuba County Jail in Marysville is the only remaining public facility in California that gets paid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to lock up immigrants fighting deportation.
“Detention is always bad, but especially at Yuba County Jail, because of its history of mental health neglect, of medical neglect, of, unfortunately, tragic deaths,” said Laura Duarte Bateman, communications manager with the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, which organized Wednesday’s protest outside ICE’s San Francisco offices.
“We’ve seen that, for more than 40 years, they’ve had these really horrible conditions,” she added.
The jail has been under the supervision of a federal court since 1979. A consent decree that was negotiated beforehand between the county and attorneys representing people incarcerated in the jail required the facility to improve conditions, including by providing timely medical care and access to exercise and recreation.
In 2019, four decades after it went into effect, the consent decree was amended to reflect current issues with the jail. But a recent monitoring report by the original attorneys concluded the jail is still not in full compliance.
The report found a number of violations, including a failure to follow intake protocols at the jail, which may have contributed to one person’s death, and the ongoing practice of placing people with serious mental illness in segregated housing units on a long-term basis.
In April 2020, the jail held 144 immigrants as part of its arrangement with ICE. But all the detainees were released during the pandemic, partly as a result of another federal judge’s orders aimed at preventing a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility.
Yet, ICE is still on the hook to pay Yuba County at least $23,720 a day as part of their agreement, even though no detainees are currently being held there, according to the Yuba County Sheriff’s Department.
That expenditure was criticized as an “obvious waste of resources” by two dozen Democratic members of Congress from California who in October expressed their grievances in a letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, whose agency oversees ICE. The lawmakers urged Mayorkas to take immediate steps to end ICE’s contracts with both the jail and two privately run detention centers in the state.
“Those detained at Yuba have experienced a lack of medical care, broken hygiene facilities, unsanitary conditions including mold and insects, spoiled food, and excessive use of solitary confinement, leading to repeat protests and hunger strikes, when formal complaints were mishandled,” the letter, signed by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San José, and other lawmakers, said.
Mayorkas has not yet replied, said a staffer for Lofgren, who chairs the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship.
ICE has not sent any new individuals to the Yuba jail since July 2020, said Kelly Wells, an immigration attorney with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office who represented detainees in a lawsuit that forced ICE officials to release dozens of people during the pandemic.
“ICE is able to conduct its operations without using this facility,” said Wells, whose clients include a young asylum-seeker who waged hunger strikes at the jail. “So why would you go back to using a facility that can’t comply with people’s constitutional rights in normal times, much less with the heightened level of care they need when there’s a pandemic?”
An ICE spokesperson declined to comment on why no individuals are currently held at the jail or whether the agency plans to detain people at the facility anytime soon, as advocates fear.
Duarte Bateman, of the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, and local immigration attorneys say they believe ICE is planning to restart intakes at Yuba because the agency has requested that an immigration court in San Francisco — whose jurisdiction includes the Yuba facility — reserve time in judges’ schedules to consider new cases of people who would be detained at the jail.
But Yuba County Jail is not expecting any ICE detainees this week, said Leslie Carbah, a spokesperson with the Yuba County Sheriff’s Office.
“The simple answer is they haven’t needed the housing here,” she said. “However, we are able to accept detainees for housing when ICE has detainees in need of housing.”
Carbah defended conditions at the facility and maintained that while some deficiencies have been noted during inspections by state and federal authorities, they have been quickly rectified.
“We have 24/7 medical and mental health care available for those in our custody, and the men and women who work in the Yuba County Jail provide a high level of service,” she said.
Nearly 22,000 people were detained in ICE facilities across the country as of Dec. 5, down from more than 27,000 reported in June, according to researchers at Syracuse University. The data shows that 75% of those detained have no criminal record, while many others have only minor violations, such as traffic infractions.
ICE says it must lock up people fighting deportation to ensure they appear for their court hearings. Detention resources are “focused on those who represent a danger to persons or property, for whom detention is mandatory by law, or who may be a flight risk,” said Alethea Smock, the ICE spokesperson.
ICE ensures that detainees in its custody “reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement,” she added, quoting the agency’s website.
In theory, civil immigration detention should not be punitive, since the people held by ICE are not serving criminal sentences.
But Ricardo Vasquez Cruz, a Salvadoran immigrant who in October became the last detainee released from the Yuba jail, said his experience there felt like a punishment — with poor medical care available to treat his diabetes and meals that made his stomach hurt.
The father of a 19-year-old U.S. citizen, Vasquez Cruz said he was often locked up in a cell for more than 20 hours a day, and struggled to get soap and other basic necessities.
“What I experienced, I don’t want another human being to live through that,” Vasquez Cruz, 46, told KQED in Spanish, after joining Wednesday’s protest. “Thank God I was able to bear it, but I don’t know if other people can.”