As state and local officials continue to stress the importance of social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak, lawyers across California are joining forces to get their at-risk clients out of ICE detention centers, including the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility in Bakersfield.
Sofia Bahena Ortuno, 64 years old, is one client who was recently released. She was a farm worker in Kern County for 20 years before being arrested by ICE in October. She said she fears being sent back to her country of origin because of violence: one of her sons was brutally murdered there.
“I did what I had to do for my kids.They accuse me of entering this place illegally but it was for the good of my family, the good of my kids to give them a better life,” Bahena Ortuno said.
On the day she was pulled over by ICE, Bahena Ortuno was in the passenger seat of her coworker’s car. They were driving to the fields where they would start their day picking yams. Her coworker passed a four way intersection before immediately being pulled over.
“We thought it was the Sheriff. My friend asked why they pulled us over but they didn't answer. They just asked for her license and registration,” Bahena Orutna said.
Eventually Bahena Ortuno realized it was ICE. They were brought to tears when they realized it was not a regular traffic stop.
Since then she has shared a room with about 50 other women at the Mesa Verde detention center. Based on what she had seen on the news, she feared contracting the coronavirus or spreading it to the other women.
She suffers from hypothyroidism and diabetes, two underlying health conditions that make her a high risk candidate for COVID-19.
“It was sad and stressful to think if I was to get sick there I might contract the virus or if someone infected with the virus were to come in and give it to me, then I might give it to the women,” Bahen Ortuno said.
She said ICE continued to bring new people to the center until about two weeks ago. The women slept in bunk beds not far from one another. The ICE officers did not wear masks or communicate safe practices either, she said.
“They never told us anything,” Bahena Ortuno said, “They themselves came and left everyday and did not wear masks or use any added protection.”
Bahena Ortuno’s lawyer had always been worried about her health while in detention, but when he learned her underlying conditions and age made her a high-risk candidate for COVID-19, he quickly put in a request to get her out of detention.
“I got a call from ICE that they were looking into this and that I would hear back from them,” Judah Lakin said. But he never heard back from them.
Judah Lakin has represented Sofia since she was detained, after family members reached out to advocacy groups to help her get representation. Lakin has since teamed up with other lawyers and organizations, including the ACLU, to file a lawsuit in which Bahena Ortuno is the lead plaintiff. The lawsuit demands the release of 13 at-risk immigrants from two ICE detention centers, Mesa Verde and Yuba County Jail.
“As soon as we told the opposing counsel that we were going to file the lawsuit. It appears that’s what ultimately moved them to release Sophia,” Lakin said.
Sofia was released hours before the lawsuit was made public. But she says officials did not give her any explanation as to why.
“I didn’t understand what was going on. For me it was impossible that they let me go just because, but I think they were scared that I would get more sick,” she said.
Sofia remains the only plaintiff on the case to be released. She is staying with family while she awaits her follow up appointment with ICE.
“I’m still worried about contracting the coronavirus given my health but I’m very happy to be able to be with my family again and to live with them, even if it’s a bit restricted.”
ICE did not respond to a request for comment. The ACLU is now asking for the release of 24 more at-risk people detained at Mesa Verde, including a 74-year-old man who was recently diagnosed with lung cancer.