Emails: ICE Deliberately Limited COVID-19 Testing at a California Facility

Recently, emails were obtained indicating that ICE deliberately limited COVID-19 testing at a Bakersfield, California immigration detention facility in order to avoid releasing immigrants. According to a shocking report from KTLA 5, COVID-19 testing was discouraged at the privately run Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility because they did not want to deal with the fallout of positive results.

Testing Limited Because of Lack of Space to Isolate Positive Cases

The Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility has long been overcrowded. Due to the limited amount of space at the detention center, it is difficult to quarantine people who test positive for COVID-19. Of course, there is a simple solution to this problem: ICE can release vulnerable immigrants and allow them to protect themselves in a safe place. Unfortunately, the agency and the private company that operates the facility chose a different path: Restrict COVID-19 tests.

In emails published in court documents, an ICE official cautioned that when another positive case is identified at the facility there would be no possible way to isolate cohorts. In effect, the official told operators of the facility that more positive cases would mean that they would be all but forced to release detainees to protect them from the virus. Despite having the capacity to conduct full testing, the agency and private prison company decided to limit tests so that they would be able to detain more people.

Federal Court: Test Everyone, Isolate Positive Cases, and Stop Taking New Detainees

A California federal court is holding ICE accountable for putting innocent people in harm’s way. On August 6th, a judge granted a temporary restraining order to a group of detainees. In doing so, the judge found that the conduct of the agency put “the detainees at serious risk of irreparable harm.” ICE is now required to administer COVID-19 testing to every detainee at the Mesa Verde facility at least once per week. Further, the agency is required to immediately isolate any detainee or employee who tests positive. Finally, the facility is temporarily prohibited from taking new detainees.

Sadly, this is just the latest example in the long line of the Trump Administration’s failures to protect vulnerable immigrants during the COVID-19 pandemic. As an example, a California judge ordered ICE to free immigrant children last month after finding that the federal government failed to provide adequate protection against the virus. As COVID-19 cases continue to persist across much of the country, immediate action is needed to protect people in immigration detention centers and prisons.

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Josh Goldstein
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