Updated Monday, April 13….ACLU clients, Yusuf Ozdemir and Jane Doe, were released the night of Thursday, April 9; and Miguel Angel Benitez and Issis Yoselin Zelaya Sagastume were released the following Friday night. “Our plaintiffs’ release from custody is a victory for them and their families,” said Monika Y. Langarica, immigrants’ rights staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “We urge ICE to continue reducing its population of detained people in accordance with public health experts’ recommendations during this pandemic. ICE detention should never be a death sentence.” Because of their acute medical conditions — including leukemia, lung disease and HIV infection — the plaintiffs were at increased health risk in these detention centers, where as many as 60-100 people share close living quarters. Detainees sleep in bunk beds only a few feet apart and share common areas, such as eating tables, showers, toilets and sinks. The Otay Mesa Detention Center recently emerged as the immigrant detention facility with the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 nationwide.
Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in federal court Friday, April 3, on behalf of four people detained at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Otay Mesa Detention Center and Imperial Regional Detention Facility who have medical conditions that make them highly vulnerable if infected with COVID-19. The suit demands the detainees’ immediate release.
Because of their acute medical conditions — including leukemia, lung disease and HIV infection — the plaintiffs are at increased danger of contracting and dying from COVID-19 in these ICE detention centers, where as many as 60-100 people share living quarters. Detainees sleep in bunk beds only a few feet apart and share common areas, such as eating tables, showers, toilets and sinks. The recent positive test of a staff member at the Otay Mesa Detention Center heightens the risks and puts lives in immediate danger.
The lawsuit argues ICE’s continued clustering of vulnerable individuals under these circumstances creates not only a humanitarian crisis but also a constitutional one. These conditions violate the plaintiffs’ Fifth Amendment guarantee of due process, which prevents the government from exposing civil detainees to risk of serious illness and death.
The lawsuit and a request for a temporary restraining order were filed in the U.S. District Court in San Diego by the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties, ACLU Foundation Immigrants’ Rights Project, ACLU Foundation National Prison Project and ACLU Foundation Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & HIV Project.
“ICE’s continued detention of these vulnerable people flies in the face of public health recommendations and government orders to practice proper hygiene and physical distancing,” said Monika Y. Langarica, immigrants’ rights staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “ICE detention is cruel and unnecessary under ordinary circumstances. During this global pandemic, it can be a death sentence for people with health problems and serious illnesses.”
Both the Otay Mesa and Imperial facilities are operated by private, for-profit companies, which have not provided detainees with adequate soap, hand sanitizer or cleaning supplies to ward off the virus, according to the court filings. Additionally, detainees are not provided with gloves or masks and staff — who come and go every day — do not consistently wear gloves or masks.
The lawsuit asks the court to order the immediate release of the plaintiffs, pointing out that other courts across the country, including in California, have issued such orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lawsuit also notes that ICE has a range of tools at its disposal to ensure individuals continue attending court hearings and other appointments. A government-contracted evaluation of one such program reported a 99 percent attendance rate at all immigration court hearings.
“This is the ninth lawsuit we have filed around the country in the last three weeks,” said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Foundation National Prison Project. “Public health officials have consistently instructed us all that reducing the number of people held in immigrant detention centers — as well as jails, prisons and other similar facilities — is a critical step to avoiding a humanitarian disaster from COVID-19. ICE must do its part to flatten the curve by releasing people from its custody, starting with the most vulnerable to serious illness or death.”
Plaintiffs in the case include:
Issis Yoselin Zelaya Sagastume (Lung Disease, Otay Mesa)
Miguel Angel Benitez (Leukemia, Otay Mesa)
Yusuf Ozdemir (HIV, Imperial)
Mr. Ozdemir’s wife, referred to in the case as “Jane Doe” (HIV, Imperial)
Unlike prisons and jails in the criminal justice system, immigration detention cannot legally be used as punishment because immigration is considered a civil matter, not a criminal one, according to The San Diego Union Tribune. That means that ICE is only allowed to hold someone in custody if that person is found to be a flight risk or dangerous to society.
Asylum seekers and other immigrants with underlying conditions that increase risk of severe symptoms are particularly concerned about staying inside Otay Mesa Detention Center during the pandemic.
Yoselin Zelaya Sagastume, a 35-year-old woman from Honduras with two young children who are U.S. citizens, tolf The Union Tribune, she’s especially worried about the coronavirus coming to Otay Mesa Detention Center because of a medical condition that puts her at high risk. Issis, who asked to be identified by her first name only, has a history of tuberculosis that left her lungs damaged.
“They say we’re safe supposedly, but I don’t see how,” Issis said in Spanish during a phone interview.
Issis came to the United States as a child and was a victim of human trafficking, she said. Because of the way the human trafficking incident played out, immigration officials mailed her court notice to the wrong address, and she never received it, she said. When she didn’t show up to court, she was ordered to be deported.
Her attorney is trying to reopen her earlier case before the federal government deports her.
Issis said she hasn’t seen the guards at the facility washing their hands regularly.
She also said detainees are not given gloves to use while cleaning, and that they have to use the same towels all day to clean the surfaces in their housing unit.