by Kari Burns

As the number of confirmed cases of the deadly COVID-19 in detention centers rises, concerns over the health and safety of the tens of thousands of immigrants currently detained have reached a crescendo.

According to ICE, the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, which is run by CoreCivic, now has the highest number of ICE confirmed cases of COVID-19 - 75 - of any detention facility in the country. Yet a complaint filed two days ago by the National Immigration Project (NIPNLG), American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLUF-SDIC), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU National) and Ropes & Gray, LLP alleges 111 of those in custody have tested positive for the virus, together with 17 CoreCivis prison staff.

"The Otay Mesa Detention Center is structurally unfit to protect the health of detained persons and staff," the suit notes. Example cited include:

  • People live in “pods” that consist of roughly 70 to 100 individuals each, housed in close quarters. Cellmates share tight spaces and lack the minimum six feet of distance from one another that the CDC recommends.
  • People share sinks, toilets and showers, which are not disinfected after each use. Likewise, detained people must share telephones, which are also not disinfected after each use.
  • The soap supply is inadequate and refills are inconsistent, forcing detained people who cannot afford to buy soap to go without.
  • Mealtimes are communal, with detained people forced to line up closely to receive their meals and choose between eating at overcrowded tables or in their cells, close to others and toilets.
Multiple reports have been received about guards deploying pepper spray

On the 16th of April, immigrants detained at Otay Mesa began a hunger strike protesting the conditions threatening their lives, and advocating for paroled release to prevent “the ICE immigrant prison from becoming a death camp.” Five days later, well after the 72-hour time frame for required medical attention, guards had not notified ICE or medical staff of the hunger strike. Another tweet from Pueblo Sin Fronteras reported that on April 21st, in an attempt to manipulate hunger strikers into abandoning their cause, guards brought in pizza for dinner, which they’d never done before; one guard taunted the hunger strikers saying that he'd eat the pizza himself.  Multiple reports have been received about guards deploying pepper spray on people protesting the transfer of more people into the facility, as well as those who object to being transferred to areas where they fear more exposure to COVID-19; this audio recording of a call from an individual at the facility while pepper spray was being used was posted by Pueblo Sin Fronteras.  

State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez brought 1,000 masks to donate to those detained inside the facility but was turned away by guards.

Reports indicate neither those in detention nor staff are equipped with adequate PPE. Initially, in order to receive a mask, those detained at Otay Mesa were told to sign contracts waiving the facility’s liability in the event of infection, and “when some refused to sign, guards pepper-sprayed them." CoreCivic denies this and later distributed disposable masks that have been used for weeks without replacements.  State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez brought 1,000 masks to donate to those detained inside the facility but was turned away by guards. As Peter J. Eliasberg, chief counsel of the ACLU in Southern California, said in a statement: “Once the virus gets inside, regular movement of staff and visitors in and out means that walls and razor wire can neither slow nor stop the viral spread to communities at large.”

Earlier in April, the Immigrant Defenders Law Center filed a petition for the release of 33-year-old Sergio Jaime Lopez, who tested positive for COVID-19. He began having symptoms in early April but “experienced serious delays in medical care” and was at one time sleeping in a cell with seven other people and housed in a common living area with around 100 other men. The filing states, “Mr. Lopez’s illness is a direct consequence of the conditions at Otay Mesa since the COVID-19 outbreak began” and cites the threat to Mr. Lopez’s long-term health if he is fortunate enough to recover. The San Diego chapter of the ACLU recently filed a lawsuit calling for the release of two people at Otay Mesa suffering from medical conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19. They were released shortly after the suit was filed.

As of April 25, 50 organizations have sent a letter based on one received from United Migrants in Otay Mesa to Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, Representative Juan Vargas, Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Governor Gavin Newsom, petitioning for direct action to address the endangerment of the detained population.

The original letter from United Migrants reads:

“This statement is made with the goal of being heard, since nothing has been done about the issue of the vulnerability, risk and conditions that we live with inside the detention center, since ours is the immigrant detention center with the highest number of COVID-19 positive cases of contagion….Inside this facility there are detained people who are vulnerable to infection due to medical conditions like diabetes, heart problems, blood cancer, among others. There are groups inside this Detention Center fighting for the right to life and to liberty through hunger strikes that are not even being taken in to account by the authorities at the detention center. Furthermore, inside the facilities they are not respecting adequate measures for prevention or hygiene to avoid more contagion, there are also not enough personnel working. Testimonies told by the guards themselves, say they also are afraid of being infected by the virus. They also do not have necessary protective equipment and the corporation does not provide it for them….We ask you from the bottom of our hearts and with all due respect that you take our petitions into account and support us in obtaining our conditional and monitored freedom, to be able to be with our families and continue our immigration cases during these difficult and critical times of pandemic” (@PuebloSF).

"...the mortal threat presented by COVID-19 CoreCivic’s inaction has already led to serious harm, and will result in deaths."

Appending the original letter, the California Committee for Immigrant Liberation and at least 20 organizations including Freedom for Immigrants, called for immediate and specific action to address the unlawful health and safety conditions. They call for CoreCivic to face consequences under federal and state law, as they are in clear violation of the standards set out by the ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) Pandemic Response Requirement. They cite the use of force against detainees and suppression of first amendment rights: “The misconduct of the situation at hand is unconscionable and unacceptable, particularly with respect to the mortal threat presented by COVID-19 CoreCivic’s inaction has already led to serious harm, and will result in deaths." The committee specifically requests that ICE exercise discretion to release individuals from these facilities, a moratorium on transfers from state custody to ICE detention, state intervention to halt the expansion of private detention facilities, rigorous oversight by state and federal officials, and legal action to hold private operators accountable for their negligence and misconduct.

More than ever we are bound by our contingent fates. To fight injustice perpetrated upon others is to uphold it for ourselves and for the future. Freedom for Immigrants will continue to post COVID-19 related reports from Otay Mesa and other detention centers on its interactive detention map. Updates on the facility can also be found at

Cover photo credit: Pedro Rios for AFSC (American Friends Service Committee). The driver is Ian Seruelo, a local San Diego attorney who represents people detained at Otay Mesa Detention Center. His firm & the organization APALA donated 500 face masks to this collective effort.

Karilea Burns got her Master’s in Literature from the University of Colorado at Denver. She studied social justice as an undergraduate, and is pursuing a career in social work with Boulder County Family and Child Services.