San Diego’s wretched Otay Mesa immigration prison is seeing near-record COVID-19 cases

Even more worrisome is that the confirmed cases among detained immigrants is for some reason drastically fluctuating. “The 91 reported active cases among detainees as of Jan. 10 fell to 52 by Sunday, according to ICE’s website,” KPBS reported on Jan. 18. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) website however lists 77 confirmed cases as of Jan. 19. But we’ve already known that ICE has been playing funny with numbers.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) told KPBS that as many as 500 of the roughly 800 immigrants currently detained at Otay Mesa are medically vulnerable. ICE has every ability to release them as a safety measure. It’s also already been under court order to identify detained immigrants at heightened risk of severe illness or death.

The Otay Mesa facility should be under added scrutiny as the site where Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia contracted the virus. He was the first person to die of COVID-19 while in ICE custody. The 57-year-old had been on a court-mandated list of vulnerable detainees who could have been released due to pandemic, but by then he was already in the hospital. Otay Mesa is so wretched it has also failed numerous virtual inspections, most recently one last fall. Investigators from the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General also confirmed a report that Otay Mesa at one point forced detained immigrants to sign liability forms in order to get a protective face mask.

The inspector general report said that one detainee who objected to the form was pepper-sprayed. “Otay Mesa denied threatening detainees with pepper spray and recorded no uses of force or uses of pepper spray during this initial distribution of masks. We requested video of this incident, but the facility stated that it did not keep video from the previous year.” Of course it didn’t.

“The best measure that can be taken to address COVID-19 in congregate settings, including in prisons and detention centers, is decarceration and decreasing population density,” UCLA COVID Behind Bars Data Project’s Joshua Manson told KPBS. But the overall population at Otay Mesa is now higher than when President Biden took office, when 332 people were detained there. Freedom for Immigrants interim co-executive director Layla Razavi notes the number of people in ICE detention has increased 56% under his administration.

“This is a far cry from the rhetoric used on the campaign trail, where Biden repeatedly promised his administration would honor the human rights and dignity of immigrants,” Razavi wrote in The San Diego Union-Tribune. “It’s past time for this administration to reverse course and begin to release immigrants back to the safety of their families and communities.”

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