Press Release

Cooley Secures Civil Rights Win for California ICE Detainees

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and prison operator to implement safety measures to protect current and future detainees from COVID-19
June 22, 2022

San Francisco – June 22, 2022 – Cooley, alongside the American Civil Liberties Unions of Northern and Southern California, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, and Lakin & Wille secured a decisive victory when US District Judge Vince Chhabria of the US District Court for the Northern District of California granted final approval of a groundbreaking class action settlement against ICE and private prison operator GEO Group for failing to take steps to address COVID-19 at two immigrant detention centers in California. Lawyers Martin Schenker and Tim Cook led the Cooley effort.

In April 2020, a class action lawsuit, Zepeda Rivas v. Jennings, was filed challenging the unsafe conditions for immigrants in custody at two detention facilities in California: Mesa Verde Detention Center and Yuba County Jail. Detainees were housed in 100-person dorms, where they slept in bunk beds an arm’s length apart and ate meals elbow-to-elbow in overcrowded cafeterias. The plaintiffs alleged that ICE and GEO violated their constitutional rights by failing to provide adequate protections against COVID-19 in the detention centers, including a lack of social distancing and basic sanitation.

In June 2020, the court recognized the “tinderbox conditions” of the facilities and issued a preliminary injunction that initiated a bail process under which several detainees were temporarily released, and ordered the defendants to provide the class with detailed, timely information concerning conditions affecting the health and safety of detainees. Discovery revealed that ICE deliberately delayed testing during outbreaks because it lacked sufficient individual cells to isolate positive and symptomatic people, knowingly left detainees with COVID-19 symptoms in crowded dormitories, delayed testing of exposed class members, and declined to develop facility-specific contingency plans for managing COVID-19 outbreaks.

In December 2020, after a five-day evidentiary hearing, the team secured another injunction, in which the court held that ICE and GEO acted recklessly and lost the right to be trusted to exercise discretion responsibly. The December injunction ordered sweeping protections, including population caps, social distancing requirements, designated dorms for symptomatic individuals, mandatory reporting and staff testing, and strict quarantine and intake protocols. As of March 2020, before the class action complaint was filed, ICE detained approximately 523 people in the two facilities. After the December 2020 injunction, that population decreased to fewer than 25 people until ICE demonstrated it could safely add new people to the facilities and comply with the court’s injunction.

Last week, Judge Chhabria granted final approval of a settlement that requires ICE and GEO to implement safety measures to protect current and future detainees in immigrant detention centers from COVID-19, in addition to limiting ICE’s authority to re-detain hundreds of people released during the lawsuit. The settlement ensures that individuals released during the case will remain with their families and provides protection against the spread of COVID-19 for those class members who remain in detention by mandating measures including population caps, intake procedures, and access to vaccinations and testing.

In granting final approval of the agreement, Judge Chhabria stated, “The work that counsel put in in this case was extraordinary both in terms of the effort involved and the result reached. And the work that they did had a significant impact in terms of preventing human suffering. The results that [they] accomplished for the Class were extraordinary.”

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