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Federal judge denies request to release 34 detainees amid Otay Mesa Detention Center COVID-19 outbreak

Otay Mesa Detention Center has the largest COVID-19 outbreak among the nation's U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement facilities.
Credit: ACLU San Diego via Twitter

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — A San Diego federal judge refused Tuesday to release 34 "medically vulnerable" detainees from the Otay Mesa Detention Center, which has the largest COVID-19 outbreak among the nation's U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement facilities.

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw previously ruled that a group of medically vulnerable detainees be released, in respose to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union alleging that overcrowded conditions at Otay Mesa put detainees at serious risk of contracting the virus.

More than 200 people have tested positive at the facility since the outbreak began, including 57-year-old Carlos Escobar-Mejia, who became the first ICE detainee to die from COVID-19 earlier this month.

While most of those detainees have been released since Sabraw's ruling, ICE was allowed to review their criminal histories, and decided that 34 among them should remain in custody "based on defendants' determination that they pose a danger to the community," the judge wrote.

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Sabraw ruled that while Otay Mesa still has the largest virus outbreak in the nation, the reduction in the facility's population and other factors have likely reduced the risk for those still detained.

Sabraw's ruling denying a request for a preliminary injunction indicates the facility is currently at 38% capacity, and that the 34 detainees at issue are spread out throughout the facility.

The judge wrote that 30 of those detainees are in housing units with no positive cases, "a stark contrast to the situation that existed before the TRO issued, where medically vulnerable detainees were being housed throughout the facility with other detainees who had tested positive."

Sabraw wrote that the remaining four detainees are in a unit that is at 12% capacity. Three of the four detainees tested positive for COVID-19 before his TRO order was issued, but have since recovered. The fourth detainee "may be at increased risk, but other factors mitigate that risk," Sabraw wrote.

The judge said Otay Mesa has taken measures to mitigate the risk of further spread, including suspending new detainee admissions, screening people who enter the facility, increasing sanitation, providing masks to detainees and requiring employees to use personal protective equipment.

Additionally, Sabraw wrote that unlike the detainees previously released, the government had additional interest in "protecting the community," when considering the 34 remaining detainees.

Earlier this month, Sabraw also denied a request from the ACLU to release medically vulnerable U.S. Marshals Service inmates from the facility, citing a law that limits the ability for inmates in criminal custody to file lawsuits in federal court, placing certain restrictions on inmate release requests when it concerns the conditions of their detention.

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