Almost two weeks have passed since the release of all women detainees from the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield on May 7th.
Notified briefly before being escorted outside the facility, a total 13 women, followed by a fourteenth that Saturday, were sent walking with their personal belongings, destination unknown.
Offered minimal support from ICE on where to find help outside facility walls, many of the women ages ranging 20 to 50 and older were able to make calls to relatives in the area for pick-up, while others had no option but to wander off. No family, friends, or safe place to shelter as an ankle bracelet monitors their every move.
On days such as this, nearby immigration rights and relief organizations mobilize to offer the required support to its most vulnerable clients to avoid any oncoming pitfalls. With only minutes to spare before many of the women scatter away to fend for themselves or face possible deportation, relief advocates such as Jeannie Parent of local non-profit KWESI or Kern Welcoming & Extending Solidarity to Immigrants begin to move swiftly.
“It was all very last minute,” said Parent of the May 7th mass release at Mesa Verde. “The lawyers were notified maybe ten minutes ahead. They gave me no time to prepare.”
Parent has become a familiar face at Mesa Verde since starting her work with immigrants five years ago through KWESI. Making weekly visits to the facility to interact, listen and check on the well-being of detainees, Parent is sometimes contacted by ICE officers to notify her of an upcoming release from the facility. Once reached, she can configure a plan of action for the detainees as they prepare for a careful transition into public life.
“ICE just locks the door. I was unwilling to just leave them on the street,” she said. “So many have issues, but most are absolutely thrilled to be out.”
From temporary hotel rooms, bond assistance, transportation and/or flights to meet with relatives or asylum sponsor families who take in the newly released, KWESI provides services through the generosity of donations from the public.
“We assisted and took a few people to hotels for the night, and then I took some people to the airport the following morning through the weekend. The last woman was released on Saturday (May 9) and taken to the airport on Sunday morning.”
Given the location of the Mesa Verde facility near the area of Union Ave., known for its problems dealing with human trafficking and crime, the potential for these women to become similar prey also increases the longer they’re on the street.
“That was my concern for those that didn’t have anywhere to go. They seemed like targets to me, but they seem much more street savvy than I realize,” said Parent.
Another group taking on an active role in helping with the welfare of detainees is the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) who have been in ongoing litigation with ICE over the treatment of detainees at Mesa Verde and other facilities.
Now with the COVID-19 pandemic adding another level of urgency, ACLU Community Engagement and Policy Advocate Rosa Lopez says the release of the women was long overdue. Pointing out the Mesa Verde capacity of 400 detainees split between four dorms of 100 persons each, the close quarters, lack of social safe distance and overwhelming ratio of men to women is unsafe.
Lopez also noted the 30 recently reported COVID-19 cases inside the ICE detention center in Otero County, New Mexico as an example of what could potentially sweep through Mesa Verde overnight.
“We want ICE to release people during the pandemic. It’s a real concern if the virus was to hit detention centers here like what happened in New Mexico. That fear is a real concern.”
Lopez, who was also with Parent outside Mesa Verde the week of the releases, added that there have been prior efforts to protect detainees including the recommended release of medically vulnerable people.
“The legal counsel was not notified until a few hours the day of that they would be released. One of the ACLU attorneys was notified by someone inside Mesa Verde.”
RELATED CONTENT: ACLU reports the death of a 74-year old detainee at Mesa Verde on May 17.
Making matters over COVID-19 concerns worse, Parent says testing for the virus among detainees for inside Mesa Verde could be minimal at best.
“ICE says they are following Center For Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, but it could be a temperature or verbal test.” ICE could not be reached for comment on testing procedures.
Both Parent and Lopez agree future chaos along with the endangerment of the women and men released can be avoided if ICE would keep their smallest lines of communication open. It’s a rocky arrangement, but one they can afford to lose for the sake of detainees in need.
“We want ICE to have better communication with advocates,” said Lopez. “Better advance notice and communication on who needs services. ICE needs to do better when releasing people and supporting how to transition these people to the public.”
“We’ve had contact with 14 of the women since they were released,” said Parent. “Our organization buys phones for people to stay in touch, but at the time we only had two. Most of the women don’t speak Spanish at all, and I don’t speak Spanish very well.”
As for the over 200 men still inside Mesa Verde, Parent says releasing them all to work on their immigration cases on the outside would better serve everyone involved.
“All these women have ankle monitors on. They let so many out in one day, why not let the men out? Let them all out. The men who have prior records have already served their sentences. Now they have another sentence and it’s indefinite, more costly. There’s no reason for anyone to be there.”
“There is no reason to detain people in immigration centers. People can continue their immigration cases outside in their homes. The long-term goal we have is to give people their release and shut down detention centers. But right now, the immediate fear is of the Coronavirus. Even people in a confined space is still risky. We will continue to advocate for the release of many, if not all.”