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ACLU pushes for pandemic Transparency in ICE facilities

Posted: 11:26 PM, Aug 19, 2021
Updated: 2021-08-20 12:37:30-04
MESA VERDE CENTER August 19, 2021

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — As cases of the delta variant rise around the country and parts of California. Immigration rights advocates said a ruling by the 9th circuit court of appeals is important now more than ever. 23ABC looked into the litigation and this year's state Department of Justice (DOJ) report on immigration detention.

Immigration Detention in California

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) officials said an uptick in COVID cases highlights the need for transparent pandemic protocols inside immigration holding facilities.

“Key is to test prior to transfer because what we’ve seen in other ICE facilities is when you into new people into the facility that haven’t been tested you’re gambling with the lives of everyone in the facility,” said Jordan Wells with ACLU SOCAL.

Earlier this summer Kern County sheriff’s officials outlined data in a public forum that showed a decrease in work with ICE shortly before the start of the pandemic.

“This chart provides an illustration of the data compared 2019 to 2020 in yellow. As you can see both the number of notification requests and the number of transfers fell significantly,” said James Morrison with Kern County Sheriff’s Office.

Three of the five immigration holding facilities in California significantly expanded capacities starting in 2019 including one in Kern County.

A DOJ report stated the big increase in bunks comes after former correctional centers were converted into immigration holding areas ‘annexed’ to privately-owned Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)-contracted facilities including Mesa Verde in Bakersfield and Adelanto.

That same report said any efforts to collect information about conditions inside Adelanto were severely limited. It went on to say, “Cal DOJ’s review of the Adelanto facility and particularly of its delivery of medical care was significantly hampered by the GEO Group’s refusal to provide access to detainees and records to the same degree that Cal DOJ received at every other facility it has reviewed.”

In response to the review a spokesperson for the GEO group sent a statement to 23ABC which read in part, “We strongly deny the allegations contained in the California Department of Justice’s report on Immigration Processing Centers in California. Every day, our front-line employees strive to ensure that those entrusted to our care are provided with high-quality services and are treated with dignity and respect."

Another of the company’s ICE-contracted facilities was also criticized in the review which cites a lawsuit filed in the 9th district court against the Mesa Verde facility last April by the ACLU. It said among other things… the agency failed to protect the nearly 400 detainees housed there against the spread of COVID 19.

At one point over half of the inmates had COVID. Court documents state inmates protested living conditions inside the building in Bakersfield with some going as far as organizing hunger strikes over several months.

ICE let people come into the facility that hadn’t been tested and hadn’t been quarantined; mixing them with other people, introducing them to the virus.

Wells told 23ABC a major victory came during one of many rulings in the case which released hundreds of detainees who he said have since shown up to their immigration hearings and worked to better their lives.

Concerns linger as delta variant cases rise in California and Kern County along with worries around an influx of activity from the recently-opened southern border.

“We’re seeing COVID rise in certain areas- but it’s coming mainly across the border," said representative Kern McCarthy.

Wells said no matter an inmate’s situation ensuring transparency and proper safety protocols in Mesa Verde or any immigration holding center is critical moving forward.

“Seeing outbreaks in other facilities, working with ice to stop spread of COVID if it’s introduced into the facility,” said Wells.

ACLU of SOCAL and ICE recently reached an agreement in principle. The 9th circuit gave them 60 days to work out fine details of a settlement agreement and present it to the district court.

23ABC also reached out to ICE. A spokesperson said the agency was not able to comment on the allegations and the state DOJ office referred 23ABC to the online report.