Court slams ICE for how it handled COVID-19 outbreak at Mesa Verde

December 7, 2020 /

Last week, a federal judge condemned actions by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that showed a “deliberate indifference to the safety of the detainees” at Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center and resulted in a COVID-19 outbreak.

Judge Vince Chhabria of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California slammed ICE and the private GEO Group, Inc., which operates the facility, not only for their dangerous inactions, but also for issuing numerous false statements, ACLU said in a news release. 

“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,” Chhabria wrote. “These officials knew that they needed a clear and detailed plan to minimize the risk of an outbreak (and to contain an outbreak if one occurred), but nine months later they still have not created one.”

The judge criticized in particular their handling of COVID-19 testing, saying there was a “conscious avoidance of widespread testing for fear that positive tests would require them to take measures to protect the safety of detainees that they preferred not to take.”

The ACLU said in a news release that testing delays were a major factor in Mesa Verde being a tinderbox for the spread of the virus. At the height of the outbreak, the judge noted, 57 of 103 people detained at Mesa Verde tested positive. 

Nearly one-third of the facility’s staff members have also been infected, including 15 infected in the past two weeks, according to court documents. 

“There is no safe way for ICE to detain people during a pandemic and no justification for doing so,” said Manohar Raju, the elected Public Defender of San Francisco. “It is past time for authorities to prioritize human lives and safety — for the benefit of those in custody as well as surrounding communities.”

The people imprisoned in the facility were represented by legal teams from the American Civil Liberties Union Foundations of Northern and Southern California, the San Francisco Office of the Public Defender, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of San Francisco Bay Area, and the law firms Lakin & Wille LLP and Cooley LLP.

The judge rejected ICE’s request to loosen restrictions he previously placed on Mesa Verde, maintaining requirements for weekly COVID testing for all people detained there and all staff. And the court added new restrictions requested by the detainees’ representatives, including that two dorms be reserved for people who test positive, protective intake procedures, and that the detainee population for each dorm be capped at 26.

Even with this win in court, the people detained within the walls of Mesa Verde remain gravely concerned about their well-being, according to ACLU. 

“We don’t feel safe; we all are afraid we will die here,” said Willian Mattias Rauda, who has been detained by ICE since November 2018. “We want to return to our children, our wives, and our communities. We should not be in this dangerous facility.” 

Immigrant rights advocates are calling for further action to be taken to protect the health of those detained in ICE facilities.

“ICE has both refused to keep people safe and repeatedly misrepresented its actions to the court,” said Bree Bernwanger, senior staff attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “The new administration should take heed of the court’s observation that ICE and GEO have lost the right to be trusted.”

“Even as the pandemic spreads to unprecedented levels throughout California, ICE continues to seek a free pass to detain people without even basic protective procedures or oversight,” said Sean Riordan, senior staff attorney at the ACLU NorCal. “By requiring critical protections for those who ICE insists on detaining, the court has sternly rebuked ICE.”