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As hunger strikes spread in detention, detained immigrants, community advocates decry inaction from Governor

Community pressure and ongoing hunger strike at Mesa Verde push ICE to release elderly man over fear of COVID19 exposure, while others remain at risk; Pressure mounts on Gov. to halt expansion of immigration detention and transfers from jails and prisons to ICE detention.

BAKERSFIELD, CA— As the threat of COVID19 grows in immigration detention facilities across California, a rising tide of hunger strikes within detention facilities and community protests is placing mounting pressure on California Governor Gavin Newsom to take executive action to save lives.

As many three detention centers across California have now joined a hunger strike which began last week at a women’s dorm inside the Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield, demanding health safety protocols be initiated to respond to COVID-19. The sustained efforts across the state come as the privately-owned Otay Mesa Detention Center,  just 250 miles south of Bakersfield, became the detention center with the largest COVID-19 outbreak at a detention facility in the U.S.

Though the hunger strikers demand they all be released immediately to respond to the pandemic, their immediate asks include: ending the transferring of people from jails and into detention facilities, that all staff working with them wear preventive items like masks and gloves,  that ICE provide COVID-19 testing for those inside experiencing symptoms, and that on-site medical assistance be provided to those who’ve contracted it.

As of this morning, the strike and growing community pressure on the outside has resulted in the release of at least one man whose health and age place him at high risk of dying should he contract the virus. Luis Alberto Escobar, the man to be released as soon as bond is placed, 63 year old man who recently underwent spinal surgery that left him with limited physical motion and suffers from incontinence, high blood pressure, and shortness of breath.

The strikers say this is not enough, however. Nearly 100 organizations across the state have signed onto a letter the strikers drafted asking Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has the power to oversee the standards of care in the facility, to take action.

One of the strikers, Marcos Alejandro Reyes, says this is a plea for their lives. “I’m afraid of getting sick,” said the . “We are locked in here together, crammed in, just packed in. Where I am now, there are 100 people in one big room. We try to take care of each other, and we try to clean, but there is little we can do. Please help us get out here.”

Mr. Reyes has cirrhosis which weakens his immune system. He also has esophageal varices, which could rupture and bleed due to respiratory symptoms of COVID-19.

Previously, over 150 organizations outlined the Governor’s Broad authority to save lives, and called upon him to halt a controversial attempt by private corporations to expand immigration detention in the state, and also to halt transfers of community members from state or local custody to ICE custody. 

ICE systematically deprives tens of thousands of immigrants of liberty, creating a system of detention across the country which did not exist a few decades ago. Detention  is rife with medical neglect and had seen multiple deaths from medical neglect even prior to COVID19. Thousands of doctors have urged release of people from immigration detention, jails, and prisons given that the conditions of confinement inherently make social distancing impossible.