A human rights organization with a Los Angeles office Friday sent a letter to the state Supreme Court, urging judges to stop the transfer of deportable non-citizens from jails and prisons to federal immigration detention centers during the coronavirus pandemic.
In the friend of the court letter, Human Rights Watch submitted what it claims is evidence from its investigation into substandard care in immigration detention facilities, allegedly illustrating why transfers of immigrants into the federal system during the pandemic are dangerous.
Alexx Pons, a spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that while the health, safety and welfare of detainees is a priority, a transfer into an ICE facility may be deemed necessary.
A transfer can occur for a variety of reasons, including security issues, to comply with a court order or to place the detainee in a more appropriate facility based on circumstances and risk factors, Pons said.
“All detainee transfers and transfer determinations are based on a thorough and systematic review of the most current information available,” Pons said, adding that ICE facilities “take every precaution” to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of those in custody.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the petition for a court order to halt the transfers on April 24, on behalf of the Southern California chapter of the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice and American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The so-called friend of the court letter was penned by Grace Meng, senior U.S. immigration researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Now is not the time for California to increase the numbers of people locked up in immigration detention,” Meng wrote. “By stopping transfers into these facilities, the state can take action now to protect detainees, detention facility staff and the wider community from further illness and death due to COVID-19.”
California transfers many non-citizens who are released from prisons and jails — because they have completed sentences, earned parole or been granted bail — into the federal immigration detention system. As a result, local prisons and jails significantly contribute to the immigration detention population, according to Human Rights Watch.
The amicus letter also describes the situation at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego County, where more than 100 detainees in the custody of ICE or U.S. Marshals, and 33 employees, are reported to have tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 26.
On Thursday, a federal judge in San Diego directed the federal government to release more than 50 medically vulnerable detainees from the facility.
Meng’s letter also cited a recent study released online by the Journal of Urban Health, which modeled the rate of COVID-19 transmission within 111 ICE detention facilities. The model showed that 72% of people detained in the facilities would be infected with the coronavirus 90 days after a facility had five infected cases. The model further showed that high rates of infection could contribute to overloading regional hospitals in the detention center’s community.
“ICE’s record shows that it is wholly unprepared to address a public health crisis of this magnitude or to address the health needs of any people added to the detention system,” Meng said. “If immigrants and workers in immigration detention in California get sick at high rates, hospitals in California’s communities are also likely to become overloaded.”