by Cindy Knoebel

The chorus of calls for help from immigrants trapped inside detention centers keep growing ... and growing.

Reports from the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield, CA are particularly troubling. On March 25, eighty-five men wrote a petition to ICE; on March 30, the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity released a video titled "Detention into Death Sentence" that shows men inside the Center while the petition is read aloud. In these times of social distancing, what's immediately striking - and concerning - are the crowded conditions. Over a dozen men, dressed in either orange or white t-shirts, are packed together as they slowly walk in a circle in front of the camera.

Video of detained men at Mesa Verde produced by Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity

"Many of us have underlying medical issues from asthma, diabetes, tuberculosis, and valley fever," one man says to the camera, the worried faces of at least seven other men behind him. "This will turn our detention center into a death sentence because this pandemic requires social distancing and that is impossible in this environment." He notes there are a hundred bunks in one room, with no opportunities for space and privacy. "They are not able to handle this outbreak," he continues. "Employees go in and out of the facility and don't even wear gloves or masks when they walk into the dorm."

Earlier this month, multiple reports emerged that hundreds of detained people had initiated hunger strikes at the facility. An April 11 article in the Fresno Bee contained an account from one person who said people had been coughing, and no checks were being performed on new arrivals to the facility. The same person noted that no hand sanitizers had been installed and that they'd only been given a bar of soap to wash themselves.  

In response to queries about the strike, ICE pushed back in the article, calling the accounts "lies" despite confirmation provided from lawyers who have been in constant contact with their clients at Mesa Verde. The article quoted a jaw-dropping statement from an ICE spokesman calling the strike reports a "deceptive tactic" and accusing the media as "unwittingly report[ing] these lies as factual."

But on April 19, a roundup article on COVID-19-related hunger strikes appeared in the Desert Sun. In the article, a representative from Central Legal de la Raza, a CA-based community-based legal organization, said that up to 200 people at Mesa Verde had been hunger-striking since April 9th. While the article indicates the hunger strikes have been at least partially discontinued since then, this sign-on call to action letter from detained persons at Mesa Verde has been circulating:

As we continue our hunger strike inside Mesa Verde, it has come to our attention that the California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has sent a letter to DHS asking them to take action on ICE detention in California. We appreciate this effort, but DHS and ICE are well aware of what is happening inside detention centers in California and across the country, and have refused to act.

We would like to remind Mr. Becerra that under California law his office has the right to inspect all immigrant detention facilities in the state, and to oversee the standards of care in these facilities. We ask Mr. Becerra’s office to join his own call to action and reach out to those of us who are currently held in immigrant detention facilities in his state, and help protect our due process and our struggle for freedom. His office can document what is taking place here, at a time when ICE is trying to deny our ability to organize and speak out.

We also call on Governor Newsom to protect the health of everyone in California, including those of us in immigrant detention. He cannot leave these matters in the hands of private corporations, or a federal agency that does not care about us. We have asked them to take action every day and they have refused. That is why we are organizing and speaking out, just like many others in detention.

While ICE works to undermine our resistance efforts, intimidate us and our supporters, and deny us our basic rights including access to commissary funds, we ask the Attorney General and the Governor to take concrete action.

In solidarity with our brothers and sisters in detention and prisons in California and across the country during this desperate time.

Mesa Verde Detention Center, Dormitory C

To date, no confirmed reports of COVID-19 at Mesa Verde have emerged. But today, ICE reported 124 new cases of the virus in detention centers, bringing the total to 220.

COVID-19 remains a ticking time bomb for immigrants in detention. The number of cases within detention centers will continue to build. Those crammed into the Mesa Verde and dozens of other similar facilities across the country can only pray they survive.

Author's note: For COVID-19 updates at Mesa Verde and other facilities, please visit Freedom for Immigrants' interactive detention map

Cover photo: A drone captures a recent image of detained people at Mesa Verde forming a heart.