May 29, 2020

Harris, California Congressional Members Lead Request for Investigation of Death at Detention Facility and ICE Measures During COVID Crisis

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) and Representatives Scott Peters (CA-52) and Juan Vargas (CA-51) on Thursday led 42 of their colleagues in a bicameral letter to the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph Cuffari, requesting a thorough investigation into the recent death of a detained individual at Otay Mesa Detention Center due to the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19). The lawmakers called for the investigation to also include an assessment of what U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE’s) is doing to prevent detainees and officers from being infected by COVID-19.

“Members of Congress have requested information from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE to understand how the Department manages the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in detention centers, and we have yet to receive sufficient answers,” the lawmakers wrote. “Based on the scant information that DHS and ICE have made available and public reports, ICE has taken insufficient measures to protect individuals in its custody and staff working in detention facilities.”

According to an ICE report published on May 27, 1,327 detained persons have tested positive for COVID-19 out of 2,620 tested individuals. Extremely close quarters in these facilities make it difficult to follow public health guidelines and social-distancing standards. Access to essential sanitation supplies, like soap or disinfectant cleaner, is unreliable or sometimes wholly unavailable, and medical services are limited.

On May 6, Carlos Escobar-Mejia died at Paradise Valley Hospital in National City, CA after contracting COVID-19 in the Otay Mesa Detention Center. He was held in ICE custody for nearly four months and was identified as medically vulnerable after he was hospitalized.

The lawmakers continued, “We urge you to investigate and assess conditions at Otay Mesa, including the sufficiency of policies, protocols, and practices governing decision-making about social distancing, hygiene, and personal protective equipment by both ICE and third-party contractors operating at the facility. We also urge you to identify the actual availability of testing, care, and treatment for detained persons; and the availability of testing for all staff at Otay Mesa, including individuals employed by third-party contractors.”

“Carlos Escobar-Mejia's life was unnecessarily cut short and other lives are now at risk because of the dangerous health conditions in ICE detention facilities,” said Andrea Guerrero, executive director of Alliance San Diego and a member of the Southern Border Communities Coalition. “To prevent further tragedy, it's absolutely imperative that OIG investigate the conditions, care and treatment of detainees, the majority of which are held in southern border states. It's also critical that OIG hold ICE accountable for the jeopardy it has placed people in. We are grateful to Rep. Peters, Rep. Vargas, Sen. Harris, and the Members of Congress who have called for this investigation to bring transparency and oversight to a preventable tragedy and are acting with urgency to save lives.”

The letter was also signed by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory A. Booker (D-NJ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Bernard Sanders (D-VT), Tom Udall (D-NM), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA); and Representatives Nanette Diaz Barragán (CA-44), Karen Bass (CA-37), Earl Blumenauer (OR-03), Ed Case (HI-01), Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05), Gerald E. Connolly (VA-11), J. Luis Correa (CA-46), Adriano Espaillat (NY-13), Sylvia R. Garcia (TX-29), Jesús G. "Chuy" García (IL-04), Jahana Hayes (CT-05), Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Pramila Jayapal (WA-07), Barbara Lee (CA-13), Zoe Lofgren (CA-19), James P. McGovern (MA-02), Jerrold Nadler (NY-10), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14), Mark Pocan (WI-02), Jamie Raskin (MD-08), Linda T. Sánchez (CA-38), Jan Schakowsky (IL-09), Albio Sires (NJ-08), Jackie Speier (CA-14), Rashida Tlaib (MI-13), Norma J. Torres (CA-35), David Trone (MD-06), Nydia M. Velázquez (NY-07), and Frederica S. Wilson (FL-24).

A copy of the letter can be found HERE.

###