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Contact NIJC Communications Director Tara Tidwell Cullen at (312) 833-2967 or by email.

Detained Immigrants, Elected Officials, Lawyers, Medical Experts and Advocates Describe Hunger Strikes, New COVID-19 Cases and Fear Prevalent at Otay Mesa Detention Center and Western Regional Detention Facility

SAN DIEGO (April 9, 2020) - Elected officials, medical experts, federal defenders, loved ones of detained immigrants and immigration advocates joined together today in a press call to demand that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection, and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) exercise their authority to free people from the rapidly deteriorating conditions in San Diego’s jails and detention centers, where hundreds of vulnerable immigrants are locked up facing deportation or criminal prosecution for immigration offenses.

COVID-19 has spread rapidly in the past week throughout the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, which is operated by private prison company CoreCivic and detains immigrants held in both ICE and BOP custody. Just nine days after a single CoreCivic employee tested positive for the virus, four housing units were on quarantine, and ICE confirmed that at least seven detained immigrants had also tested positive, with many others displaying symptoms of the virus. Over the past week, hundreds of people at Otay Mesa Detention Center and at Western Regional Detention Facility, a BOP facility operated by The GEO Group for pre-trial detainees facing federal charges, participated in hunger strikes to protest conditions and register their concerns over the spread of COVID19 in the facilities.

During the call, San Diego-based National Immigrant Justice Center Senior Attorney Dorien Ediger-Seto read a joint statement on behalf of seven civil rights organizations and legal service providers representing people detained at Otay Mesa that described accounts from their clients: “As COVID-19 has spread across the world, this country, through California, and into Otay Mesa Detention Center, we have collectively, received dozens of phone calls from clients and their family members asking for help, telling us of poor conditions inside the detention center and of rampant misinformation, rumors, and fear. Our clients are sick, anxious, and frustrated that their conditions of confinement make it impossible for them to protect themselves from COVID19.” The statement was signed by the following organizations: the National Immigrant Justice Center, Immigrant Defenders Law Center, Al Otro Lado, The Bail Project, Jewish Family Service of San Diego, Casa Cornelia Law Center, and the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. 

Joshua Jones, senior litigator for the Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc., who represents immigrants held in BOP custody at Otay Mesa while they face criminal prosecution for immigration offenses, shared the following comments on the press call: “These are the things that our clients are telling us: they tell us that social distancing is impossible in these facilities … They tell us that proper hygiene is not possible, inmates at Western Region Detention Facility operated by GEO indicate that for periods of time in one of the pods water was shut off for multiple days.Make no mistake, people are already sick. Our clients are describing having flu-like symptoms, they describe seeing other people who are sick. Some people describe waiting as much as four days [for medical attention], other people indicate they are afraid to ask for help because they don’t want to end up in solitary confinement.”

Dr. Chris Beyrer, professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said: “Reducing crowding in detention facilities is an urgent public health priority. Authorities should rapidly prioritize release of those persons detained for administrative and other non-violent charges and who pose no threat to public security. Detention facilities cannot be hived off from the communities which surround them, the people who work in them, and the detained--this a matter of real public health importance for all concerned.”

The following members of Congress issued statements calling for the release immigrants from federal detention centers in San Diego and throughout the country:

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, who pressed the administration on their policies and procedures around COVID-19 and called on DHS, ICE, and CBP to release low-risk and vulnerable detained persons said: “The conditions in the Otay Mesa Detention Center are unacceptable and inhumane. We are in the middle of a public health crisis and need to take every measure possible to save lives and slow the spread of COVID-19. I’ve pushed the administration to release low-risk and vulnerable individuals. ICE has now recognized that releasing individuals protects public health, and it’s past time that they took swift action.”

U.S. Representative Jesús “Chuy” García (IL-04) said: “The Trump administration’s failed response to the coronavirus pandemic has endangered the lives and safety of Americans and immigrants alike. Immigrants in detention centers are completely unprotected and terrified for their lives. Cramped conditions and the lack of proper hygenic supplies make detention centers ticking viral bombs. These facilities are inhumane, deadly, and they must release their detainees. Our response must be as indiscriminate as the virus, and ICE must release migrants in detention, clean these facilities, and ensure proper safety and health protocols are in place before resuming operations.”

U.S. Representative Adriano Espaillat (NY-13) said: “This is truly an unprecedented time for our nation, and we must answer the call to address the immediate and long-term impacts of the ongoing public health crisis. Immigrants and other vulnerable communities are among the hardest hit. I continue my efforts along with my CHC colleagues to call for the immediate suspension of immigration enforcement activities, including detentions, arrests and mass raids during this COVID-19 pandemic.”

Directly impacted immigrants and families, and legal service providers offered the following testimonies regarding conditions at Otay Mesa:

A client of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center who is currently detained in Otay Mesa shared his observations at the detention center in a pre-recorded video on April 2, 2020: “Last Sunday, in one of the pods which holds over 100 people, there was a strike. People refused to eat. The majority of us participated because the virus can come and it will likely infect us all. We all use the same bathrooms here, and we are always crowded in the same place which we call the pod. They told us an officer tested positive. They haven’t given us enough soap to wash our hands. I heard that two people with the virus were freed from one of the centers. There’s a pod here that is quarantined. We think they have the virus. They are in lockdown and have symptoms. There are new people coming into detention. The majority of them [officials] don’t wear masks or gloves, only when they touch us.” His attorney, Margaret Cargioli, confirmed the worst of his fears came true just days after the recording: a person in his pod tested positive for COVID-19 and Sergio is now in quarantine. Margaret reflected, “I now fear that the next call I get from Sergio he will tell me he has tested positive for COVID-19.” 

Kathy, the girlfriend of an NIJC client who has been detained at Otay Mesa for two months, joined the press call and described her fear for her loved one’s safety. As a hospital employee in Virginia who has been working to screen patients with potential COVID-19 symptoms, she knows the dangers immigrants at Otay Mesa face without adequate protections: “Our biggest concern should be making sure everyone is safe and that they receive proper care. Being in the conditions they are currently in, they receive neither. I speak to my boyfriend every day and he tells me how everything gets worse day by day. He has to make a mask out of his own shirt to protect himself from others coughing and sneezing around him. It’s traumatic to think you will never see your loved one again, knowing he is at high risk in there.”

The Federal Defenders of San Diego shared the following testimonies from their clients, who are detained in BOP custody at Otay Mesa: A pretrial detainee at Western Regional Detention Center who recently participated in the hunger strike there told his attorney, “I just wanted to tell you about my case. I just want to see. I haven’t eaten in four days, and I feel poorly, I don’t know. They’re not giving me food. And I wanted to see how everything’s going with my case. Because I can’t take it anymore. I feel really weak. And I don’t know what to do. So, today, a buddy here fainted. [Unintelligible]  I mean, they don’t give a shit. And, well now, this buddy fell and hit his head and was non-responsive. We don’t know if he’s alive, if he was taken away alive or if he’s dead. I just wanted to tell you that.” Another client detained pretrial on an illegal re-entry charge at Western Regional Detention Center informed his attorney that jail staff instructs detainees to stay six feet apart, “but it’s impossible for us to do that.” The client said he sleeps in a cramped room with 30 inmates. On April 6, he reported that the man sleeping next to him had had a fever for three days. Both were worried the man was infected with COVID-19.

Jewish Family Service of San Diego shared the following information from their client Mary, who called her attorney on April 7 with the following information: “I am scared because two women in my pod were sent to the medical unit with high fevers which is one of the symptoms for COVID-19.” Mary’s mother called the same day and explained, “I am constantly worried about Mary because the conditions at the detention center are not good. I am also afraid that if something happens to me while Mary is still detained, Mary’s one-year-old son who is a U.S. citizen will not have anyone else to take care of him.”

Miryan Villalobos of The Bail Project, a nonprofit that pays bail for people incarcerated throughout the country, including in Otay Mesa and Western Regional, shared the following statement: “There is no denying the humanitarian crisis that COVID-19 will create in San Diego’s jails and detention centers, where conditions are the perfect incubator for this deadly virus. It is unconscionable to leave thousands of immigrants trapped in these crowded detention facilities as this pandemic ravages the country. What we do in the face of this crisis is not only a question of justice, it’s a question of basic humanity and history will not be kind on those who looked the other way.”

Monika Y. Langarica, immigrants’ rights staff attorney, ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, said “Immigration detention should never be a death sentence. On April 03, 2020, the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties filed a lawsuit to demand the release of detainees at the Otay Mesa Detention Center and the Imperial Regional Detention Facility whose underlying medical conditions place them at heightened risk of serious illness or death in detention due to COVID-19.”

Tara Tidwell Cullen, National Immigrant Justice Center,, 312-833-2967
Kara Hartzler, Federal Defenders of San Diego,, 917-853-1250