May 6, 2020 – A broad alliance of immigrant and civil rights groups has submitted friend-of-the-court (amicus) letters in support of a lawsuit seeking to compel Governor Newsom and Attorney General Becerra to halt the transfer of Californians from local or state custody to ICE amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit, filed last week, urges the state’s highest officials to protect some of the most vulnerable Californians: people locked up in a way that makes physical distancing impossible. ICE’s disturbing record of medical neglect has compounded the crisis, with some 100 COVID-19 cases confirmed at the for-profit Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego alone – the highest concentration in any immigration detention center in the country. Detained immigrants say ICE is underreporting the extent of the crisis, with only a small fraction given access to testing. 

Meanwhile, California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has reported some 200 cases of COVID-19 of its own. Medical experts and advocates warn that transferring people from the “tinderbox” of state or local jails to the even more extreme “tinderbox” of ICE detention presents a grave danger to detained people, staff, and the surrounding community, undercutting efforts to flatten the curve. 

The amicus letters include submissions from:

Directly impacted Immigrants in California who despite earning their release were transferred to ICE. 

  • The group of formerly detained immigrants  underscores that “[l]anguishing in detention waiting for the unknown is an excruciating form of anguish” and point out “the physical design and limitations of immigration detention do not” allow for distancing,” as people “are placed in close quarters and share every inch of common space.”
  • The group also notes that pursuing the right to remain in the United States should not include having to risk serious illness and death in immigration detention due to COVID-19. Immigrants facing deportation should be allowed “to continue fighting their cases free from the deadly conditions of detention.”

85 immigrant rights organizations, spearheaded by Immigrant Defense Advocates. 

  • This letter cites the systemic lack of oversight and accountability in ICE detention. organizations warn of “deaths for those detained and a devastating impact on the surrounding community” and argue “the for-profit entities operating these facilities will delay widespread testing for as long as possible, as their primary concern is their stock valuation and shareholder confidence, as opposed to the lives of those held inside.”

Asian Prisoner Support Committee, Youth Justice Coalition, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus. 

  • The groups highlight stories of medically vulnerable people, who had originally fled genocide and war as refugees, endured trauma from childhood onward, and who, despite earning their release, were turned over to ICE by the Newsom administration. “While lower courts have ordered ICE to release individuals through individual and class habeas petitions, these decisions will have little to no impact if ICE can simply replenish its detainee population via CDCR transfers….. many of our community members will face grave illness and death.”

Organizations submitting the letters are active in the ICE Out of California Coalition, which has championed legislative efforts to end local and state entanglement with ICE for nearly a decade, and the Dignity not Detention Coalition, which successfully passed AB 32 (Bonta) to end for-profit detention centers and jails in the state last year, among other coalitions. 

While California has passed legislation placing certain limits on its involvement with detention and deportation over the last several years, transfers to ICE nonetheless continue. The VISION Act (Voiding Inequality and Securing Inclusion for our Immigrant Neighbors or AB 2596), by Assemblymember Rob Bonta, also seeks to permanently halt transfers, which are unnecessary and harmful to California’s diverse communities. Even prior to the pandemic, civil rights groups had condemned transfers for separating families and violating basic due process principles. 

In addition to legislative efforts and legal efforts, advocates have also called upon Gov. Newsom to use his executive authority to immediately halt transfers and the expansion of immigration detention.

Background: ICE systematically deprives tens of thousands of immigrants of liberty, creating a system of detention across the country which did not exist a few decades ago. Medical neglect is rampant and over 200 people have died in ICE detention nationwide since 2003. As part of broader efforts to end mass incarceration, immigrant rights advocates have long called for the ending of immigration detention and for resources to be redirected to health and housing. Alternatives such as community-based case management have proven effective.

The Immigrant Defense Project works to secure fairness and justice for immigrants in the United States.