Answering Calls from Immigrants in Detention During COVID-19:

Updated: Mar 2

Once Solely a Legal Battle, Now One of Life or Death.



Before shelter in place, CCIJ and other legal service organizations made monthly visits to Yuba County Jail and bi-weekly visits to Mesa Verde Detention Facility. In these visits we provided legal assistance to the 500 plus immigrants fighting their cases from inside those detention centers. Now that in-person visits are not possible, phone consultations have become our only form of contact with people who are forced to remain detained in unhealthy conditions in the middle of a pandemic.

The Friday before the first shelter in place order, members of the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice (CCIJ) along with partners California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and the Immigration Law Clinic at U.C. Davis– were scheduled to go to Yuba County Jail in Marysville for our monthly visit. As usual, the day before we got numerous calls from people detained by ICE in Yuba County Jail asking if we would be visiting their pod. As news of the pandemic spread, it became clear that our visit would be cancelled. We realized it was a matter of time before the pandemic hit jails and detention centers across the country.

In the meantime, other members of CCIJ and partners including Centro Legal de la Raza headed to what would be their last visit to the Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield before the spread of COVID-19 made it impossible to go back. As of today, it’s been five months since our last visit to Mesa Verde and six months since our last visit to Yuba County Jail.

Our only form of contact with people inside detention since shelter in place

Our phone hotline has become the only form of contact we have with people inside of detention. In the two months before shelter-in-place we spoke with an average of four new people in detention per month. Since mid-March, that number has tripled. Throughout the pandemic, our phone calls, which once dealt exclusively with legal matters, now include questions regarding how much soap detainees are being provided, how many people are sleeping per dorm, and whether anyone has alarming symptoms such as fever or shortness of breath.


It’s strange and painful to answer calls coming from detention while working from home. At the other side of the line, the murmur of multiple conversations makes the space feel small and overcrowded. I wonder if they can hear the noises that surround me and that I try to diminish: the construction work from across the street, my dog’s barking, the sound of cars as they rush through the nearby freeway. Dios la bendiga, cuídese mucho allá afuera, they usually say as they’re saying goodbye. Gracias, usted también allá adentro, I respond. But I know there’s little they can do to stay safe while being locked up in such precarious conditions.


Testimonies from inside of detention

In April, folks who were detained in Mesa Verde and Yuba County Jail started to share letters with us regarding their fears and concerns while being locked up during the pandemic. CCIJ shared these letters in order to raise awareness about this critical situation and to persuade others to join us in demanding that all detainees be released amid COVID-19.


“Where I am now there are 100 people in one big room. We try to take care of each other, and we try to clean, but there is little we can do. Please help us get out of here,” wrote Marcos. Francisco, who had recently been transferred to Mesa Verde, also shared his concerns: “The second week I was here I got sick. I developed a fever, I had a headache, chills, and my teeth were chattering. It took two weeks before I could see the doctor who just gave me ibuprofen. At no point did they test me for coronavirus.”


Testimonies like these prove that ICE is not doing enough to keep people in detention safe. On April 20th, immigrants detained at the Mesa Verde Detention Facility and the Yuba County Jail filed the Zepeda Rivas v. Jennings class action lawsuit to compel ICE to release many individuals from detention due to the dangerous conditions they faced inside the facilities. A little over a week later, the court granted a temporary restraining order that began a bail application process to help mitigate the dangerous conditions in the facilities. Since then, the population in Mesa Verde has decreased by 70% (dropping from 400 in mid-March to 121 in early August) and the population in Yuba County Jail has seen a decrease of 79% (going from 193 in mid-March to 40 in early August).

Throughout the pandemic, our phone calls, which once dealt exclusively with legal matters, now include questions regarding how much soap detainees are being provided, how many people are sleeping per dorm, and whether anyone has alarming symptoms such as fever or shortness of breath.

ICE’s response to the deadly pandemic

While legal services providers and advocates fight to further reduce the population in detention centers, ICE continues to put people in cages in the midst of a pandemic. According to data from CCIJ, Centro Legal de la Raza and a student research team at the U.C. Davis Global Migration Center, since early-March, ICE has transferred at least 79 people to Yuba County Jail and 119 to Mesa Verde Detention Facility after they had been released from state jails and prisons. They are taken into unsanitary conditions where social distancing is not possible and medical attention is virtually non-existent.


As more people started being released under the Zepeda Rivas bail process, those who remained detained grew increasingly impatient and scared of being locked up in such dangerous conditions during a pandemic. Leaders inside Mesa Verde and Yuba County Jail organized hunger and labor strikes on several occasions demanding the protection of their lives. On some occasions they were met with retaliation.


On May 6, 57 year old Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia became the first person to tragically die of COVID-19 in the hands of ICE. Twelve days later, Choung Woong Ahn died by suspected suicide in Mesa Verde Detention Facility. In the months thereafter, there have been five COVID-19 deaths in immigration detention facilities. According to ICE, more than 5,355 people detained in their two hundred plus detention centers have tested positive for COVID-19 since February. Advocates believe these numbers are even higher considering ICE’s tendency to lie and deny people testing.

While legal services providers and advocates fight to further reduce the population in detention centers, ICE continues to put people in cages in the midst of a pandemic.

Are test results being shared with the people tested inside the detention centers?

In the last few weeks there has been a massive COVID-19 outbreak in the Mesa Verde Detention Facility. As of today, 58% of the population inside the facility has been infected with the virus. A few days after we learned about the aggressive spread of the virus there, we received a call from Jose, a 53 year-old man from El Salvador who has been detained in the Mesa Verde Detention Facility since late July.


In his call, Jose told me he had been tested twice for COVID-19 the week before but still hadn’t gotten the results. He mentioned that he wasn’t feeling very well and had a mild headache. The next day, ICE issued a list as part of the Zepeda Rivas litigation naming the people who had COVID-19 inside of Mesa Verde and his name was there. He called us a few days later. “Jose, I’m so sorry to hear you have COVID-19,” I said. However, he told me that he hadn’t gotten his results yet so he didn’t know that he had the virus. I told him that ICE’s list stated he tested positive for COVID-19. “I was fine before I came here,” he said. “They put my life in danger when they brought me here.” According to ICE, everyone that has tested positive in Mesa Verde has been informed. However, Jose insisted there were others in his dorm who, like him, hadn’t been told whether or not they had tested positive. Other advocates and immigration attorneys have also mentioned that their clients have not been informed about their results either.


It’s time elected officials take a stand

ICE and GEO keeps finding ways to work around health and safety requirements and continues to contribute to the local and worldwide spread of the pandemic. As detention centers in Northern and Central California have reduced the number of people they take in, ICE started transferring people to detention centers in other states such as Louisiana. Once outside of California, folks are separated from their families and community support systems and are unable to access the legal assistance they would otherwise have.


Despite overwhelming evidence that ICE has no regard for human life, most elected officials continue to turn a blind eye to all of these abuses. Even California Governor Newsom, who often talks about his support for immigrants, has been reluctant to face this issue head on. In the meantime, immigrants remain locked away in cages completely unprotected from this pandemic, making an already horrible situation a full-blown human rights catastrophe. COVID-19 has shown that measures historically considered “too radical” like abolishing ICE are actually urgent and necessary if we truly value human lives.


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