Story at a glance
- A federal district court judge ruled in favor of immigration detainees in a complaint against two California facilities after an outbreak of COVID-19 cases.
- The decision found that ICE and GEO officials “acted with deliberate indifference” towards the health safety of detainees.
- Coronavirus cases in the surrounding county are on the rise and several staff have tested positive for COVID-19.
United States District Judge Vince Chhabria did not mince words in a case against two Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities, calling their response to the coronavirus pandemic "abominable."
"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 said in his decision.
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Immigration detainees at Mesa Verde Detention Center and a jail in Yuba County brought the lawsuit earlier this year over unsafe conditions at the two facilities, one of which is run by the for-profit GEO Group. Chhabria granted a preliminary injunction "to ensure that conditions at an ICE detention facility do not create an unconstitutional risk of detainees," after finding that the defendants "repeatedly acted with deliberate indifference to the safety of detainees."
The GEO Group website says that the company "has taken comprehensive steps to address and mitigate the risks of COVID-19 to those in our care and our employees," listing steps taken to ensure health and safety. But Chhabria found that ICE and GEO officials deliberately avoided testing detainees and staff, failed to address safety concerns, opposed bail and gave false testimony in court proceedings.
More than half of the detainees at Mesa Verde Detention Center tested positive at the height of the outbreak. In recent weeks, as cases rise in the surrounding county, 15 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, raising concerns about another outbreak.
“Now that the outbreak has subsided, the defendants argue that a preliminary injunction with similarly intrusive requirements should not issue, and that the temporary restraining order directed at Mesa Verde should simply be lifted. This argument is impossible to accept, particularly given the unique layout of the facility and the abominable performance of those who run it,” Chhabria said, adding, "Not to mention the recent surge in Covid-19 cases among facility staff—cases we might still be unaware of if not for the temporary restraining order."
The ruling also lays out an intake procedure and plan to isolate detainees who test positive for COVID-19, with limits on the population per dorm and guaranteed testing.
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