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Letter to Joseph V. Cuffari, Inspector of Department of Homeland Security - California Congressional Members Lead Request for Investigation of Death at Detention Facility and ICE Measures During COVID Crisis

Letter

Dear Inspector General Cuffari:

We write to ask for a thorough investigation into the recent death of a detained person at Otay
Mesa Detention Center (Otay Mesa) due to COVID-19. We request that your investigation
include an assessment of the sufficiency of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's
(ICE's) preparedness for a COVID-19 outbreak, including any measures to prevent its spread
among the detained population and ensure the testing, treatment, and care of persons detained at Otay Mesa during this pandemic. Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in the United
States, Members of Congress have requested information from the Department of Homeland
Security (DHS) and ICE to understand how the Department manages the risk of COVID-19
outbreaks in detention centers, and we have yet to receive sufficient answers. Based on the scant
information that DHS and ICE have made available and public reports, ICE has taken
insufficient measures to protect individuals in its custody and staff working in detention
facilities.

As of today, 1,327 detained persons have tested positive for COVID-19 out of 2,620 individuals
who have been tested,although this may be an undercount of the number of infections since
ICE has not implemented widespread testing of all detained persons. According to ICE, it has
released at least 900 medically vulnerable individuals since March. The Otay Mesa Detention
Center has suffered the most significant coronavirus outbreak among ICE detention facilities; at
least 217 total detained persons have tested positive, including 158 in ICE custody. ICE has
stated that the agency will consider releasing more detained persons based on medical conditions
and public safety considerations.

On May 6, Carlos Escobar-Mejia died at Paradise Valley Hospital in National City, CA after
contracting COVID-19 in the Otay Mesa Detention Center. He was held in ICE custody for
nearly four months and was identified as medically vulnerable after he was hospitalized.
Advocacy organizations have described the following dangerous conditions at Otay Mesa:

* cells are populated by up to eight people at once with bunk beds fewer than six feet
apart;
* when a detained person has tested positive, ICE has "cohorted" dozens of people who
were in the same housing unit as that person, which means they were locked up
together for two weeks in close proximity despite public health guidance
recommending physical distancing to prevent the spread of infection;
* detained persons share sinks, toilets, telephones, and showers, with no disinfectant
cleaner available for after use;
* soap runs out frequently and refills are inconsistent, forcing detained persons who
cannot afford to buy soap to go without it;
* mealtime is communal, with detained persons lined up in close proximity to receive
their meals, compelling them to choose between eating at overcrowded tables or in
their cells, close to other detained persons and toilets; and
* detained persons have reported insufficient medical services and potential retaliation
against individuals who report concerns regarding the same.

Additionally, a group of 43 individuals currently detained at Otay Mesa describe serious medical
neglect by staff at Otay Mesa.5 We urge you to investigate and assess conditions at Otay Mesa,
including the sufficiency of policies, protocols, and practices governing decision-making about
social distancing, hygiene, and personal protective equipment by both ICE and third-party
contractors operating at the facility. We also urge you to identify the actual availability of
testing, care, and treatment for detained persons; and the availability of testing for all staff at
Otay Mesa, including individuals employed by third-party contractors.

Your robust and thorough investigation is imperative to preventing COVID-19-related illness
and death in ICE custody. In addition to seeking records from ICE and interviewing staff at Otay
Mesa, this investigation should include interviews with legal service providers and detained
persons (with adequate precautions to prevent retaliation and ensure anonymity).

Thank you for your time and attention to this matter. We respectfully request a response as soon
as possible.


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