SAN DIEGO – A coalition of immigration and civil liberty groups are demanding a “drastic reduction” in the number of people held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center during the coronavirus pandemic.
The groups, including the National Immigration Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Marshals Service and detntion center administrators over the weekend.
The South Bay detention center has been subject to protests and other legal challenges in recent weeks, with activists voicing their concerns about the conditions inside the facility as the virus spreads.
A report by the San Diego Union-Tribune revealed the Otay Mesa center has the most confirmed COVID-19 cases of any immigration detention facility in the country, with 111 people in custody sick, and more than two dozen employees having contracted the virus.
“Of those, 67 are detainees in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, meaning that they are not being held for criminal reasons but rather are waiting for immigration court cases or to be deported,” the newspaper’s Kate Morrissey explains. “The other 44 are U.S. Marshals Service inmates who are in criminal custody.”
The groups behind the new lawsuit say they are applying to the court for an emergency temporary restraining order on behalf of detainees at the center in Otay Mesa and at another in Imperial County. The restraining order would allow detainees to leave while they await immigration proceedings.
“This includes people ages 45 and over and those with underlying medical conditions that place them at a heightened risk of serious illness or death due to COVID-19,” the groups said in a news release.
The lawsuit claims conditions in Otay Mesa make basic social distancing measures such as staying 6 feet away from others impossible.
“Continuing to detain people at Otay Mesa in the current circumstances is cruel and irresponsible,” said Sirine Shebaya, an executive director with National Immigration Project. “In the midst of a rapidly worsening COVID-19 outbreak, the facility is failing to take basic steps to protect the people in its custody, and in doing so, is exposing hundreds to serious illness or death.”
Both Immigration and Customs Enforcement and CoreCivic, the company that runs the facility, have told the Union-Tribune they are following national guidelines to care for detainees. CoreCivic says “it has responded rigorously and appropriately to the pandemic, including issuing masks to detainees and staff,” the U-T reports.
“All detainees at OMDC have the appropriate personal protective equipment for maintaining their safety while detained in ICE custody,” said ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack.