“When we filed this lawsuit, ICE had put our clients and communities at risk by detaining as many people as possible in filthy, crowded dorms and cells, creating a tinderbox for COVID-19,” said Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area Senior Staff Attorney Bree Bernwanger.
Organizations including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area originally filed this lawsuit back April 2020, stating that crowded conditions at Mesa Verde Detention Facility and Yuba County Jail made practicing safety guidelines like social distancing impossible. The lawsuit additionally stated that when detained immigrants held a hunger strike in protest over unsafe conditions, officials retaliated by threatening to cut off commissary access to shampoo, soap, and even food.
The GEO Group-operated Mesa Verde facility in particular was a cesspool of illness, yet officials recklessly sought to loosen restrictions there. “From the start of the public health crisis until now, the conduct of the key ICE and GEO officials in charge of operations at Mesa Verde has been appalling,” a judge slammed in a scathing December 2020 ruling.
Litigants said the population at both Mesa Verde and Yuba dropped from more than 460 to 62 following the lawsuit. This settlement comes at a critical time: While Yuba released the final remaining immigrant there last October, it has in recent weeks begun to jail immigrants once again.
”The settlement agreement also provides three years of health and safety protections for those remaining in custody,” groups continued. “This includes a temporary population cap and ongoing population limits to allow for social distancing; testing and vaccination mandates for staff and people in custody; the release of vulnerable people; and compliance with CDC guidance.”
Of course, the best course of action is to just not detain immigrants at all, which ICE has every ability to do.
“This settlement mandates important, potentially life-saving measures that will reduce the spread of COVID in ICE detention centers, and also limits the number of people in custody in these facilities during this pandemic,” American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California Immigrant Rights Program Staff Attorney Sean Riordan said. “During this dangerous pandemic, ICE officials should be doing everything possible to release people from detention facilities.”
Among the detained immigrants who led this fight was Brenda Ruiz Tovar, who won her freedom through this litigation. “When COVID hit, I was terrified because the government was crowding so many of us together in such a dangerous place and not doing anything at all to protect us from the virus,” she said. In the time since her release, she’s completed school and has become a dental hygienist.
“Still, I think every day about the people who are still locked up in that place,” she continued. “I’m happy that the settlement makes conditions safer, but I cannot accept that the government is still detaining people like me unnecessarily during a dangerous pandemic.”