Civil rights attorneys allege that although about 1,900 COVID-19 test kits were sent to the immigrant detention center in Adelanto, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials refused to allow the vast majority of them to be used, according to Los Angeles court documents obtained Tuesday.
In a filing late Monday in Los Angeles federal court, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and co-counsel moved to force ICE at Adelanto to follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for custodial institutions.
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ICE spokesperson Alexx Pons said that while the department does not comment on pending litigation, the health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees "is one of the agency's highest priorities (and) any assertion or claim to the contrary is false and intentionally misleading."
In its suit, ACLU asked the court to order ICE officials at Adelanto to test all individuals who report symptoms of COVID-19 and cease transferring people into the facility other than for reasons specified by CDC guidance.
Any alleged refusal to give tests to people who are symptomatic is "medically and morally repugnant," according to the ACLU.
"I cannot imagine how scary it must feel to be one of the hundreds of jailed immigrants who have experienced COVID-19 symptoms but cannot access a test, even though ICE has well over a thousand test kits available," said Ahilan Arulanantham, senior counsel at the ACLU SoCal.
Pons said all detainees are tested for the coronavirus upon intake and isolated and monitored for a 14-day period in accordance with CDC guidelines "to ensure for the safety and health of all those in our custody."
Pons said that four of the 830 current Adelanto detainees are under isolation or monitoring by a doctor due to being positive for COVID-19. The total number of detainees who have tested positive for the coronavirus while in ICE custody since testing began in February is a dozen, and some detainees may no longer be in ICE custody or may have since tested negative for the virus, Pons said.
A previous order to follow CDC guidelines was issued on April 23 as part of a preliminary injunction in the lawsuit Roman v Wolf concerning conditions at Adelanto. During the discovery phase of the lawsuit, emails and other materials revealed substantial violations of the CDC guidelines, including on COVID-19 testing, the ACLU alleged.
On May 23, an official at the private company GEO Group Inc., which operates the Adelanto center on contract, sent a message that about 1,900 test kits -- enough to test all people detained and staff members at Adelanto were shipped overnight to the facility, according to the filing.
The ACLU alleges that GEO planned to "begin offering testing to all staff and all detainees" on the day the test kits arrived, but ICE halted the plan.
The ACLU alleges that Gabriel Valdez, the ICE officer in charge of Adelanto, stated, "I don't want any detainees tested through this voluntary process."
As of May 27, ICE allegedly allowed testing of new arrivals at the facility, but not of those already there, according to the ACLU. The testing record reflected that 305 people detained at Adelanto presented COVID-19 symptoms between March 1 and July 15, but only one of them was tested, according to the court filing.
According to ICE, the Adelanto population has been reduced from 1,687 in January to 830 as of Tuesday, which reflects a roughly 51% reduction.
"We continue to take proactive measures to mitigate risks associated with the pandemic, including placing individuals on alternatives to detention programs, suspending social visitation, incorporating social distancing practices with staggered meals and recreation times, and through the use of cohorting and isolation of new admissions into the detention network," Pons said.
However, Luis Yboy Flores, a 39-year old man who has lived in the United States since the age of 3 but remains jailed at Adelanto while he litigates his deportation case, says he knows of no one who has been tested at the facility.
"No staff have told us how to get a test," he said in a statement provided by the ACLU. "I believe the Adelanto staff have not tested us because if they did, it might reveal that a lot of people here would test positive."
The allegations came to light last week in an ACLU lawsuit against another ICE immigration jail in Bakersfield. In that case, the judge strongly criticized ICE and ordered them to test all the detainees, according to the civil rights organization.
The Monday filing alleges other violations of CDC guidelines, including those that highly restrict the transfer of detained people to and from facilities. The ACLU alleges ICE ignored the restrictions, including when transferring into Adelanto people from facilities with active COVID-19 outbreaks.