SAN FRANCISCO — In an emergency order late yesterday, federal District Court Judge Vince Chhabria ordered the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to test all people detained and all staff at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center for COVID-19.
Chhabria emphasized the urgency of a situation that has quickly spiraled out of control: “I’m ordering that it be done immediately,” the judge said in the oral order, “and nobody stop working until they’re completed.”
The judge cited the “deliberate indifference” of ICE and private company GEO Group, Inc that manages the facility. “There’s no question that this outbreak could have been avoided,” he said.
He ordered that a rapid test be used to give near immediate results. Documents filed in a class-action lawsuit against ICE show that rapid test units had been sent to the facility, but ICE refused to use them on detainees. Instead, when it ultimately did tests, it used one that took days to show results. This created a highly a dangerous situation with people who are positive mixed with the general population.
That situation has grown more dire by the day. As of Saturday (August 15), of the 104 detained people at the facility, at least 54 are positive for the virus.
"We are really scared that we will never return to our families outside,” said Hugo Lucas, who is currently detained at Mesa Verde. “I have my daughter who is 14 years old, and I can't tell her what's going on because I'm too scared for her."
The suit against ICE was filed April 20 by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the ACLU Foundations of Northern California and Southern California, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) of the San Francisco Bay Area, Lakin & Wille LLP, and Cooley LLP.
An emergency status report was requested of the court on Friday, resulting in the court order.
Chhabria’s order also directed that the approximately 140 staff members at Mesa Verde be also tested immediately, beginning with their next shift and weekly thereafter. Documents filed in the case showed that ICE intentionally did not test staff for months to avoid impeding immigration enforcement.
“The situation for those at Mesa Verde is dire. There is no other way to say this: we are in crisis,” said Emi MacLean, a deputy public defender at the San Francisco Office of the Public Defender. “And ICE is clearly unwilling or unable to do what needs to be done to protect people in its custody from the threat of a deadly pandemic.”
“If ICE and GEO can’t guarantee the basic safety of the people in their custody, through regular testing and adequate medical care, we need to consider whether they should be allowed to detain anyone at all,” said ACLU NorCal Senior Staff Attorney Sean Riordan.
“As the Court rightly recognized, ICE and GEO cannot be trusted to protect the health and lives of detained immigrants,” said Bree Bernwanger of the LCCR. “ICE continues to detain people during a deadly pandemic, yet has repeatedly refused to take even basic measures to protect their lives.”
Read the emergency status request here: