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JOSE GASPAR: Detainees at Mesa Verde fear 'death conditions'

Hugo Lucas has been held captive at the Mesa Verde ICE detention facility in Bakersfield since December 2018. The undocumented immigrant from Guatemala continues to be housed there as his case makes its ways through the labyrinth immigration process. Given today's coronavirus pandemic, he is terror-stricken.

"I fear death in here," Lucas said during a phone interview recently. "My biggest fear is that I will die and not see my family anymore."

Lucas has good reason to be afraid. He is among the hundreds of detainees at Mesa Verde caught in the middle of a pandemic housed in close quarters with others. Pleas for help, claims Lucas, have gone unheard by ICE and by GEO, the private for-profit company that runs the facility for ICE. So Lucas joined a hunger strike started by fellow detainees in the women's dormitory on April 9, calling on ICE and GEO to take greater protective measures against contracting COVID-19.

On Easter Sunday, 32 women detainees from Dorm B signed a petition detailing their situation at Mesa Verde. The letter is titled "Petition to the Lord," and part of it reads: "My sisters and I lay two feet away from each other. We are so vulnerable living in close proximity of each other... it is so easy to catch a disease with no protection around us... Every night I look around and keep thinking, am I dead?"

Mesa Verde is but one of numerous ICE detention centers around the country with detainees on a hunger strike in hopes of getting greater protection measures. In some ways it appears to be working along with help from local community groups and the ACLU. Mesa Verde can hold up to 400 detainees, but has scaled back the population, according to ICE.

"ICE has taken affirmative steps to reduce the number of detainees at Mesa Verde during this national pandemic by reconsidering custody determinations (for detainees)...who do not pose a danger to the community and are not a flight risk," ICE San Francisco Field Office Director David Jennings said in an email. "ICE will continue to monitor cases for risk related to COVID-19."

ICE initially denied a hunger strike had occurred at Mesa Verde. When I asked ICE spokesman Jonathan Moor about it, he sent an email denying any such event.

“There is no hunger strike occurring at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Mesa Verde Detention Facility,” read the statement. Further, "This deceptive tactic exploits the plight of detainees and delegitimizes the integrity of media outlets that unwittingly report these lies as factual. No detainees have missed their facility provided meals, nor declared a hunger strike to staff.”

Hate it when my integrity gets delegitamized, but not in this case. Under ICE guidelines, 72 hours must pass before a detainee is considered to be on a hunger strike. Less than 24 hours had passed when I asked Moor about it, and he issued the statement denying any such hunger strike was taking place. And then there's Lucas, with whom I spoke four days after the hunger strike started.

"You're talking to someone, with me, who is on hunger strike," said Lucas. "What more can I say?"

Something else detainees find troubling, they say, is that no one on the outside is listening to them and hence they have no other option but to pursue the hunger strike. Another excerpt from the women's petition reads, "There are so many of us with medical conditions — asthma, diabetes, hypertension, heart and lung disease, etc.... there is nowhere to run and hide from this deadly virus."

According to Moor, all new ICE detainees are given a detailed medical screening within 24 hours of their arrival to ensure contagious diseases are not spread throughout the facility. Nationwide, ICE's detained population has dropped by more than 4,000 detainees since March 1 with a more than 60 percent decrease in book-ins when compared to this time last year.

And, said Moor, detainees at Mesa Verde were issued surgical masks April 17 to protect against the spread of COVID-19. Detainees are scheduled to receive a new surgical mask every Monday, Wednesday and Friday while the pandemic is ongoing. Was this as a result of the hunger strike? Moor did not say.

To increase social distancing, ICE claims to have reduced the population at all detention centers to 70 percent or less. That would mean no more than 280 detainees at Mesa Verde. Meals and recreation times are also staggered so as to limit the number of detainees gathered together.

As of last week, ICE reported more than 250 detainees had tested positive for COVID-19 at ICE detention centers nationwide. Twenty-nine of those cases are at Otay Mesa in San Diego and none have been reported so far at Mesa Verde. Give it time.

On the legal front, the ACLU has filed several legal actions against ICE in an attempt to free certain detainees with medical issues that put them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. It's had some limited success, with some detainees from Mesa Verde being released recently, including a 64-year-old grandmother from Bakersfield. Last week ACLU joined a chorus of other legal firms in filing a class action lawsuit against ICE on behalf of detainees at Mesa Verde and Yuba City. The suit asks a federal court to order ICE to "significantly" reduce the number of detainees at both facilities, but does not state a precise number. Among other things, the suit alleges conditions at both ICE facilities are a breeding ground for COVID-19.

The hunger strike at Mesa Verde has apparently subsided, but detainees say it might start again.

The closing line from "Petition to the Lord" ends thus: "If they won't give us freedom then give us what we need to protect ourselves. Our lives matter...Immigrant lives matter."

Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a news anchor/reporter for Telemundo Bakersfield and KGET. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com. The views expressed here are his own.

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