Pushing back a second time against the American Civil Liberties Union, the state of California says it has no authority to thin out prisoner populations at federal immigration detention centers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, the state Attorney General’s Office, in a response this week, said the ACLU should continue to press its case with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The ACLU filed an emergency lawsuit April 24 with the state Supreme Court requesting that it compel Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra to take immediate action to freeze all ICE transfers — undocumented immigrants moved from county jails or prisons to ICE detention facilities —due to the threat of a coronavirus outbreak.
In response, the attorney general on Thursday, April 30, called the request an “unprecedented remedy” in that the state has no authority over federal matters. The A.G.’s Office gave a similar response to a second lawsuit filed by the ACLU, also on April 24, requesting the state to usurp local law enforcement powers to reduce inmate and juvenile ward populations at county jails and juvenile detention facilities.
“Petitioners have failed to identify any clear, ministerial duty on the part of this State’s Governor or Attorney General,” according to the attorney general’s response.
Becerra’s office further argued that the ACLU is already suing ICE in federal court to achieve the same end, which is the proper recourse.
But, according to the ACLU, the state does have the power to correct unsafe inmate conditions if they are in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Confined quarters, unsanitary conditions and poor medical care are turning jails, prisons, juvenile and ICE detention and facilities into “COVID-19 hotspots,” the ACLU maintains.
“Rather than acknowledging these constitutional violations, Respondents raise a series of technical arguments for maintaining the status quo,” said Los Angeles attorney Sara A. McDermott, of the law firm Munger Tolles & Olson, on behalf of the ACLU, in its response filed Thursday.
In its lawsuit, the ACLU singled out two ICE detention facilities — the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield, where a woman is on a hunger strike due to alleged intolerable conditions, and the Adelanto ICE Processing Center, where a former detainee fell ill and was symptomatic for COVID-19 but was denied testing and medical care.
In a statement, ICE Los Angeles Field Office Director Dave Marin said his agency takes every precaution and measure necessary to ensure the health, safety and well-being of those in its custody. He said there have been no reported COVID-19 cases at Adelanto, either among staff or detainees, and that since January the prisoner population there has been reduced by 23 percent.
He said ICE has suspended prisoner visitations, implemented social distancing guidelines, staggered its meal and recreation times, and isolates new admissions for 14 days before placing them into the general population.
ICE reported no COVID-19 cases among staff or detainees at the Mesa Verde facility either, according to its website, which as of Friday had not been updated since April 25.