Judge denounces conduct at for-profit ICE detention facility, accuses official of lying to cover up ‘deliberate indifference’ to the lives of immigrants during pandemic

Demonstrators protest outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) headquarters to demand the release of immigrants families in detention centres at risk during the coronavirus pandemic, in Washington, DC, on July 17, 2020. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images
  • US Judge Vince Chhabria on Thursday accused an ICE official of lying to cover up the “deliberate indifference” to the lives of immigrants at a privately-run detention centre.
  • Over the summer, over half of those detained at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Centre contracted COVID-19. In the past two weeks, over a dozen staff members have also tested positive.
  • The facility in Bakersfield, California, is run by The GEO Group, a for-profit prison company.
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US officials and their partners in the for-profit prison industry intentionally failed to protect immigrants detained at a facility in Northern California from COVID-19, “appalling” behaviour that led to a “severe and prolonged outbreak” of the coronavirus, according to a federal judge.

In an order released Thursday, Judge Vince Chhabria of the US District Court for the Nothern District of California sided with a group of immigrant plaintiffs, backed by the American Liberties Union, who charged that officials at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Centre, privately run by The GEO Group, were grossly negligent in their approach to the pandemic. Indeed, Chhabria wrote, they “showed a deliberate indifference to the safety of the detainees.”

And they were dishonest about it, she said. For example, Alexander Pham, an officer with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement with responsibility for the Mesa Verde facility, earlier testified to the court that all new arrivals were being subject to a 14-day quarantine “when no such quarantine existed,” Chhabria wrote.

Officials also “deliberately avoided testing detainees and staff for fear that the results would require them to take expensive and logistically challenging safety measures,” the judge said. That inaction led to a crisis over the summer: at one point, over half of the facility’s 103 detainees were infected with the coronavirus, “an outbreak that ICE and GEO made no meaningful effort to prevent and were totally unprepared to respond to.”

It has been an “abominable performance,” Chhabria added.

Neither ICE nor GEO immediately responded to a request for comment.

According to ICE, there have been over 7,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among detained immigrants since the start of the pandemic, including 59 cases among detainees at the Mesa Verde facility; a third of the staff members there have also contracted the disease, including 15 in the past two weeks.

The judge’s ruling upholds a previous order requiring ICE and GEO to carry out weekly testing of staff and detainees at Mesa Verde, which is located in Bakersfield, California. It also requires facility staff to segregate detainees who have tested positive in separate dorms.

Immigrants who are detained there do not think that is enough.

“We don’t feel safe,” Williams Mattias Rauda, detained since November 2018, told the ACLU. “We all are afraid we will die here.”

Bree Bernwanger, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco, argues that the behaviour documented by Judge Chhabria should be a lesson to President-elect Joe Biden and his team.

“ICE has both refused to keep people safe and repeatedly misrepresented its actions,” Bernwanger said. “The new administration should take heed of the court’s observation that ICE and GEO have lost the right to be trusted.”

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