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Otay Mesa ICE facility has at least 16 COVID-19 cases, highest of any  U.S. detention site

Story and photo by Miriam Raftery, East County Magazine

April 13, 2020 (San Diego) – After the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed lawsuits in 13 states demanding release of detained immigrants at high risk due to COVID-19, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sent a letter to Congress on April 7 announcing it had identified 600 medically vulnerable detainees and to date, had released 160 of them.

Today, local ACLU representatives asked the court to dismiss a suit filed earlier this month on behalf of four medically vulnerable people detained at the ICE Otay Mesa Detention Center and Imperial Regional Detention Facility, after ICE released all four  plaintiffs.

“Our clients, Yusuf Ozdemir and Jane Doe, were released Thursday night; and Miguel Angel Benitez and Issis Yoselin Zelaya Sagastume were released Friday night,” states a press release issued today by  the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties, ACLU Foundation Immigrants' Rights Project, ACLU Foundation National Prison Project and ACLU Foundation Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & HIV Project.

"Our plaintiffs’ release from custody is a victory for them and their families,” said Monika Y. Langarica, immigrants’ rights staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties. "We urge ICE to continue reducing its population of detained people in accordance with public health experts’ recommendations during this pandemic. ICE detention should never be a death sentence.”

Because of their acute medical conditions — including leukemia, lung disease and HIV infection — the plaintiffs were at increased health risk in these detention centers, where as many as 60-100 people share close living quarters. Detainees sleep in bunk beds only a few feet apart and share common areas, such as eating tables, showers, toilets and sinks.

The Otay Mesa Detention Center recently emerged as the immigrant detention facility with the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 nationwide. As of April 12, 16 cases had been confirmed, including 12 immigrants and 4 individuals facing criminal charges.

Over the weekend, the San Diego Sheriff cited protesters who held a “noise” protest in their vehicles, honking horns outside the facility and calling for release of immigrant detainees due to COVID-19 risk.

"We are thrilled to learn that our clients have been released and will be able to practice social distancing and other safety measures,” said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Foundation National Prison Project. “For our clients — in this suit and in similar suits the ACLU has filed around the country — a COVID-19 infection is a death sentence. Public health experts have been clear that immigrant detention centers present a public health risk to the people in detention and the communities that surround them. Many more people must be released to mitigate that risk and truly flatten the curve."