Immigrants detained at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield and the Yuba County Jail have filed a class action lawsuit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and GEO Group Inc., demanding the release of the more than 400 individuals held in the two facilities.
Represented by a collection of attorneys from San Francisco law firms and the American Civil Liberties Union foundations of Northern and Southern California, the plaintiffs say the cramped conditions and lack of access to hygiene products in the detention centers exacerbate the health crisis from the coronavirus and put their lives in danger.
“I learned about ‘social distancing’ from watching the news in the detention center,” Javier Alfaro, a 39-year-old detainee, said in a news release announcing the lawsuit. “Even if the authorities had told us about social distancing though, it doesn’t seem like there would be any way to practice social distancing here.”
Eight people have already been released from Mesa Verde and Yuba County as the result of a previous lawsuit filed on behalf of detainees with health problems that could be complicated by COVID-19. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said the class-action suit is the first legal action on behalf of all held at the two facilities.
ICE spokesman Jonathan Moor said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
“However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement with or stipulation to any of the allegations,” he wrote in an email. “While fulfilling the Department of Homeland Security mission, ICE trained law enforcement officers adhere to our core values integrity, vigilance and respect.”
A representative for GEO, a private prison company that operates Mesa Verde for ICE, said the company played no role in releasing individuals from detention. The spokesman said those decisions are made by the federal government and the courts.
Nevertheless, the GEO representative said the company had taken comprehensive steps to address the coronavirus at its detention centers.
"We take our responsibility to ensure the health and safety of all those in our care and our employees with the utmost seriousness, and we reject efforts to advance a political agenda by misrepresenting the conditions in our facilities and denigrating the work of our front line employees who are showing up every day to ensure the safety and well being of those entrusted to our care," the company wrote in an email. "We will continue to work with the federal government and local health officials to implement best practices for the prevention, assessment and management of COVID-19.”
Including the ACLU foundations, lawyers from the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Lakin and Wille LLP and Cooley LLP are involved in the suit.
The suit calls the conditions inside Mesa Verde and Yuba County Jail extraordinarily dangerous during the coronavirus pandemic. During a time when the general public is being asked to stand 6 feet apart at all times, lawyers for the plaintiffs say that is impossible in detention.
“Our clients are trapped,” Bree Bernwanger, senior staff attorney at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, said in a statement. “There is no question that the conditions of their detention are likely to cause a devastating outbreak, but ICE is refusing to do the one thing that could prevent it: release people.”
Detainees inside Mesa Verde have said up to three-quarters of the facility recently went on hunger strike in protest of the conditions. After ICE installed a soap dispenser and paper towel rack, the hunger strike was partially abated as detainees waited for more measures to be taken.
“People on the inside of ICE facilities have not been waiting for courts and lawyers to intervene. In the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, they have been organizing to call attention to their awful conditions and the need to release them,” Jordan Wells, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, said in a statement. “This lawsuit supports the leadership of these hunger strikers on the inside.”