Lawsuit Demands ICE Release Immigrants at Risk of Death from COVID-19

Thirteen Detainees at Yuba County Jail and Mesa Verde in Bakersfield are Plaintiffs

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SAN FRANCISCO — Today, thirteen immigrants detained in two ICE detention centers in California filed a lawsuit in federal district court against U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement calling for their immediate release.

Because of their advanced age and underlying medical conditions, the 13 plaintiffs are especially vulnerable to the potentially fatal COVID-19 infection while they are confined in crowded and unsanitary conditions where social distancing is not possible.

The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU Foundations of Northern California and Southern California, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, and Lakin & Wille LLP. The plaintiffs are detained by ICE in Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield, California and at Yuba County Jail.

“I am extremely worried about the coronavirus because I have been told by a lot of people that I am at risk of having a very serious reaction to COVID-19 because of my other health conditions and my age,” said lead plaintiff Sofia Bahena Ortuno. Ms. Bahena is a 64-year-old farmworker who suffers from hypothyroidism and diabetes. The grandmother of six has been detained in Mesa Verde Detention Center since October when she was arrested during an ICE traffic stop. “I have seen some of the officers at the Mesa Verde detention center coughing and not wearing masks. They also keep coming to work. I am worried how this will affect me.”

The CDC has identified people with the following conditions as having a particularly high risk of severe COVID-19; those who have blood disorders, chronic kidney disease, chronic liver disease, compromised immune systems, current or recent pregnancy, endocrine disorders, metabolic disorders, heart disease, lung disease, and neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions.

“From all the evidence we have seen, ICE is failing to fulfill its constitutional obligation to protect the health and safety of individuals in its custody. ICE should exercise its existing discretion to release people with serious medical conditions from detention for humanitarian reasons,” said William Freeman, senior counsel at the ACLU of Northern California.

“There is no valid justification for locking up vulnerable immigrants and putting their lives at risk,” said Manohar Raju, the San Francisco Public Defender. “This is an unprecedented crisis that compels us to take swift action, before it’s too late.”

Ricardo Vasquez Cruz, another plaintiff in the case, is 45 years old, suffers from diabetes, gout, gastritis, and high blood pressure, and had tuberculosis in 2018. He and the detainees in his pod at the Yuba County Jail are forced to clean their own area, but are not given appropriate supplies. He is afraid of every surface he touches, especially because new detainees are still being brought in. He hopes to be released to live with his son, a U.S. citizen, while he fights his immigration case.

Numerous public health experts have warned that ICE’s failure to reduce the number of people detained endangers the lives of all detainees, staff, and the broader community.

Stephanie Padilla, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, issued the following statement: "The stakes for the release of detained persons are at an all-time high as the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak places them at an elevated risk of ailment or death. ICE must allow for the release of detainees not only for their safety, but for that of their staff and the community as a whole."

Judah Lakin, with Lakin & Wille issued the following statement: “ICE has proven time and again, even under the best of circumstances, that it is not capable of protecting the health and safety of incarcerated individuals. These are extraordinary circumstances and public health experts around the country have rung the warning bell that the only way to protect incarcerated individuals, as well as the broader community, is to depopulate jails and prisons. These plaintiffs all have risk factors that place them at an increased risk of serious harm if they contract COVID-19 and should be released immediately.”

Bree Bernwanger, a senior staff attorney at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, issued the following statement: “Locking up immigrants in for-profit prisons and county jails has always been senseless, cruel, and dangerous. Now, it looks to be deadly on a massive scale. We will not stop until ICE finally prioritizes human life over its racist and anti-immigrant agenda and releases our plaintiffs from detention under conditions that could kill them.”

Here's a link to the Complaint:

Here's a link to the Motion for Temporary Restraining Order:

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