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Advocacy organizations call on California leaders to address COVID-19 in immigration detention centers

More than 50 advocacy organizations have sent a letter to state agencies demanding safer conditions for people held at immigration detention centers across the state, including two facilities in Kern County.

According to court filings, nine staff members at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility in Bakersfield tested positive for COVID-19 as of Sunday. Pedro Figueroa-Padilla, who is detained at the facility, says lawyers informed him of the outbreak and that the staff that got COVID-19 did not come in contact with those detained.

“However, that’s really hard to believe, because there's no coordination in these places,” he says. “There's no consistency with anything.”

There are no reported COVID-19 cases among detained immigrants at the facility as of Wednesday. There were 18 confirmed cases at the Golden Annex Facility in nearby McFarland as of Wednesday.

As part of the letter, Figueroa-Padilla and the other immigrants request that staff refill hand sanitizer dispensers and cleaning supplies more often. People detained at the facility also want access to N95 masks. Advocates are also asking for access to mRNA vaccines and boosters for people detained at these facilities.

In addition, Edwin Carmona Cruz, with the California Coalition for Immigrant Justice, says they are urging Attorney General Rob Bonta to use his authority under state law. AB 103 says the Attorney General can choose which facilities to inspect and when.

“One of the actual requests that we're making in this letter is encouraging the Attorney General Rob Bonta, under AB 103, to make an unannounced visit to these detention facilities,” he says.

A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office acknowledged the letter and says they are working toward increasing transparency around immigration detention facilities.

The letter was also sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom and Dr. Tomas Aragon, public health director for the California Department of Public Health. A spokesperson for the CDPH says the agency is reviewing the letter. Newsom’s office has not yet responded to requests for comment.

“The California Department of Public Health has a very large responsibility to ensure that local public health departments have some sort of authority over these private prison operators that are clearly not following public health guidelines in these counties,” Carmona-Cruz says.

Federal immigration officials have not responded to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the GEO Group says employees have been dedicated to mitigating COVID in their facilities and providing education about the benefits of the vaccine.

Last month, immigrants detained at Mesa Verde and Yuba County jail won a lawsuit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the GEO Group. As part of the settlement, ICE and GEO must continue providing coronavirus mitigation measures. The settlement must be approved by the U.S. District Court before it goes into effect.

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Madi Bolanos covered immigration and underserved communities for KVPR from 2020-2022. Before joining the station, she interned for POLITCO in Washington D.C. where she reported on US trade and agriculture as well as indigenous women’s issues during the Canadian election. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in anthropology from San Francisco State University. Madi spent a semester studying at the Danish Media and Journalism School where she covered EU policies in Brussels and alleged police brutality at the Croatian-Serbian border.