Thirteen immigrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at two California facilities — including a Northern California jail — filed a lawsuit in federal district court Tuesday demanding to be released because they say their health conditions make them vulnerable to dying if they get infected with the coronavirus.
The detainees are “confined in crowded and unsanitary conditions where social distancing is not possible” at Yuba County Jail in Marysville and Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield (Kern County), the ACLU said Tuesday.
The lawsuit cites guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that identify older adults and people with chronic and underlying health conditions as being at higher risk of severe illness if they are infected by the coronavirus, which has infected 2,628 people in California, including 1,023 in the Bay Area. The CDC said people at high risk have chronic lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, diabetes, serious heart conditions, and those who are immunocompromised.
Sofia Bahena Ortuno, 64, had been detained in Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield since getting arrested by ICE during a traffic stop in October. She said in a statement released by the ACLU of Northern California that she has hypothyroidism and diabetes. She was released Tuesday, two hours before the lawsuit was filed, ACLU officials said.
Bahena had said she was worried about getting coronavirus because she was 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.”
“I have seen some of the officers at the Mesa Verde detention center coughing and not wearing masks,” Bahena said before getting released. “They also keep coming to work. I am worried how this will affect me.”
Jonathan Moor, an ICE spokesman, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit describes the medical ailments that each of the people have, ranging from diabetes, severe asthma, severe anemia, neurological illness, high blood pressure and hypertension.
It alleges that it is “effectively impossible” to practice social distancing in their holding cells or to maintain the proper hygiene that is required to lessen the risk of transmission of the new coronavirus. The lawsuit describes the “barracks-style cells” in which they sleep in close quarters with dozens of other detainees at both facilities. Detained individuals said they live in unsanitary environments where many people share the same toilets, sinks and showers “without disinfection between each use,” according to the lawsuit.
“Detainees report frequently not being provided soap, or having to share a single bar of soap among many people, and having to wash their soiled laundry in the shower,” the lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit also points to how jails across the country — including Alameda County — are releasing inmates as a method of reducing the spread of the new coronavirus.
The immigrants are represented by multiple agencies including the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the American Civil Liberties Union’s northern and southern California units, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Bay Area immigration firm Lakin & Wille LLP.
Judah Lakin, an immigration attorney with Lakin & Wille, said that ICE is not capable of protecting the health and safety of people whom they detain.
“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,” Lakin said.
San Francisco Public Defender Manohar Raju said the coronavirus pandemic should compel officials to “take swift action, before it’s too late.”
“There is no valid justification for locking up vulnerable immigrants and putting their lives at risk,” Raju said.