Editor's note: This story originally appeared with KQED. Read the original here.
As the coronavirus has spread through immigration detention centers across the country, thousands of people locked up in several of those facilities have stopped eating — often for several days — to call attention to conditions they say make them more vulnerable to the virus.
About 21 immigrants held by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Yuba County Jail, north of San Francisco, recently went on a hunger strike for nearly a week to try to pressure ICE and jail officials to take steps to prevent an outbreak.
“Every day we wake up scared, thinking that if one of us gets it, we all we're all going to get it. ...We might not be able to see our families again.”
“Every day we wake up scared, thinking that if one of us gets it, we all we're all going to get it,” said Eduardo Melendez, 23, an ICE detainee at the Yuba County Jail. “We might not be able to see our families again.”
He and more than 2,000 other immigrants at ICE facilities in California, Florida, New Mexico, Ohio, and other states have refused meals in protest since March, according to Detention Watch Network, an advocacy group. The detainees have also called for more masks, soap and better medical care.
Meanwhile, the ACLU has filed more than 40 lawsuits nationwide to force immigration authorities to release people at risk of serious illness from the disease. Other organizations, such as the Center for Constitutional Rights, have also sued.
Nearly 5,500 people in ICE custody nationwide have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the agency. An additional 45 employees at detention facilities have also been infected, but that tally does not include staffers at privately run facilities.
The coronavirus has so far not been diagnosed among ICE detainees at the Yuba jail. But the virus has swept through two privately run immigration detention centers in California. Nearly 300 detainees at the Otay Mesa facility in San Diego and the Mesa Verde facility in Bakersfield were infected, including dozens who were hospitalized and one man who died from the disease.
At the Yuba County Jail, one of the detainees who refused food for six days was Juan Jose Erazo Herrera, 20, an asylum-seeker from El Salvador, said Kelly Wells, an attorney with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, who represents him.
“Conditions are awful under normal circumstances, and now they're outrageously abysmal and dangerous for people. ... Nobody should be in this facility, much less, people who are just awaiting immigration proceedings.”
“Conditions are awful under normal circumstances, and now they're outrageously abysmal and dangerous for people,” said Wells. “Nobody should be in this facility, much less, people who are just awaiting immigration proceedings.”
The Yuba jail began detaining immigrants for the federal government in 1994. The contract generated close to $6 million a year, as of 2017, funds that support the operations of the sheriff’s department.
Immigrants detained at the jail, some of whom said they participated in another hunger strike in July, want ICE and jail officials to regularly test staff members, who go in and out of the facility, for COVID-19.
They are also requesting a halt to new admissions from other county jails, people who are sometimes housed with ICE detainees.
“This should be handled properly before it’s too late,” said Melendez, a Salvadoran immigrant whose family brought him to California at age 8.
At least three staffers at the facility have tested positive for the coronavirus since July, according to court disclosures by ICE officials, said Wells.
A spokeswoman for the Yuba County Sheriff’s Office said she couldn’t confirm whether any employees had contracted COVID-19 because it was a confidential personnel matter.
“The Sheriff’s Department has taken a very proactive approach to mitigation efforts in our Jail related to the pandemic. ... To date, we have not had any County inmates or ICE detainees test positive.”
“The Sheriff’s Department has taken a very proactive approach to mitigation efforts in our Jail related to the pandemic,” said Leslie Carbah in a statement. “To date, we have not had any County inmates or ICE detainees test positive.”
For most of the pandemic, the Yuba jail continued to receive inmates from state prisons with COVID-19 outbreaks, including two transfers in July from Solano and Pleasant Valley.
But the jail has not accepted any prison transfers since August, and has only taken inmates from other county jails when legally required, said Carbah.
“It is important to know that all new intakes, whether county inmates or detainees, must go through a 14-day quarantine before being housed with the general population,” she said.
The Yuba jail has medical care on-site, around the clock, and implements a “thorough daily sanitation and cleaning protocol based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines,” she added.
Yet several immigration detainees told KQED the jail is often filthy, and it can take more than a week to see a nurse or doctor when sick, a complaint echoed by hunger strikers at Yuba in 2019.
"They're not doing any testing. They don’t give out hand sanitizer. Social distancing is impossible in that facility. ... You add all these things together, it's just it's the perfect storm just waiting to happen.”
Joe Mejia Rosas, 41, was held by ICE at the facility for nearly a year. He said the jail is not prepared to adequately handle a potentially deadly coronavirus outbreak.
“They're not doing any testing. They don’t give out hand sanitizer. Social distancing is impossible in that facility,” said Mejia Rosas, who was released in July. “You add all these things together, it's just it's the perfect storm just waiting to happen.”
Mejia Rosas is one of about 50 ICE detainees who a federal judge ordered freed on bail or parole from the Yuba County Jail during the pandemic. The orders, by US District Judge Vince Chhabria, came after immigrants held there and at the Mesa Verde detention center sued to force ICE to make changes to allow for social distancing at the facilities.
Earlier this month, Chhabria ordered ICE and the GEO Group, the prison company that owns Mesa Verde, to regularly test all detainees and employees there for COVID-19. Within weeks, the number of detainees who tested positive grew from 9 to 59 detainees. At least 28 staffers have also been diagnosed, according to plaintiffs lawyers in the case.
Last week, the California legislature approved a bill, AB 3228, that would make it easier for individuals to sue for-profit prison companies for breaching required standards of care. The legislation is headed to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.
ICE reports that it has tested nearly 30,000 detainees nationwide and that it’s offering appropriate medical care to people who have tested positive for the virus.
But safety concerns persist.
Judges have ordered more than 500 immigrants, including people with diabetes and cancer, to be released from detention centers across the US, said Eunice Cho, an attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project. The nonprofit has sued for ICE detainees to be released on bail or parole, particularly those who are at risk of serious illness from COVID-19.
“In some of our cases, the courts have also released people because of the fact that the lower the number of people in the facility, the greater protection it provides everybody else in terms being able to avoid COVID-19."
“In some of our cases, the courts have also released people because of the fact that the lower the number of people in the facility, the greater protection it provides everybody else in terms of being able to avoid COVID-19,” said Cho.
But many many medically vulnerable immigrants remain in detention, she added.
Six people in ICE custody have died due to COVID-19, including two men in their 70s, according to the agency. This summer, ICE said it began testing all newly arrived detainees at the facilities it owns. But that does not include detention centers owned by for-profit companies, where most immigrants are held.