The American Civil Liberties Union's San Diego chapter filed a class-action lawsuit Tuesday calling for a drastic reduction in the number of detainees at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, where a COVID-19 outbreak has infected both detainees and staff members.
The ACLU is also seeking an emergency temporary restraining order demanding the immediate release of all Otay Mesa detainees over the age of 45 and people with underlying medical conditions, due to a heightened risk of coronavirus-related illness or death.
A court hearing has not yet been scheduled regarding the TRO.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's latest numbers indicate 29 ICE detainees and eight employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at the facility, while CoreCivic, a private company that runs the detention center, reported 10 of its employees have tested positive as of Monday. At least nine U.S. Marshals Service detainees have also tested positive at Otay Mesa.
Some detainees have called the facility a "ticking time bomb" where nothing is being done to prevent an outbreak of the illness.
Miguel Angel Rosas, the son of one of those detainees, said he never thought the detention center wouldn't take precautions to protect the people inside. But that's what happened.
"In her detention, where they have a lot of COVID-19, they all have the same symptoms that they're coughing," he said. "Recently my mom just called me telling me that she was tested and then she has the coronavirus."
He said he hasn't heard from his mom since and he's nervous about what could have happened to her.
The ACLU said overcrowded conditions at Otay Mesa, as well as the Imperial Regional Detention Facility in Imperial County -- also included in the suit -- have made social distancing an impossibility.
They contend that cells are often overpopulated, detainees share restroom facilities without disinfectant, and are forced to crowd together in order to receive meals.
In its suit, the ACLU asks for the release of enough detainees to permit for proper social distancing, hygiene maintenance and medical care at the facilities, with the most vulnerable detainees given priority for release.
The ACLU also claimed that imprisoning people at the Otay Mesa and Imperial detention centers at heightened risk of exposure to the virus violates the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids the government from confining people under conditions that unreasonably risk their health and safety.
ICE representatives could not immediately be reached for comment regarding the suit, which was filed in San Diego federal court.
"ICE is knowingly jeopardizing the lives of people in its custody by refusing to take action to mitigate the outbreak of COVID-19 at Otay Mesa and prevent the introduction of the virus at Imperial," said Monika Y. Langarica, immigrants' rights staff attorney at ACLUF-SDIC. "ICE's disregard for public health recommendations threatens community safety and risks collapsing surrounding healthcare systems."