May 18, 2020

ACLU SoCal Communications & Media Advocacy,, 626-755-4129
Centro Legal de la Raza,, 559-213-6841
San Francisco Public Defenders, valerie.ibarra@sfgov.or, 628-249-7946

Immigrant, 74, Dies by Suicide in Mesa Verde Detention Facility

Attorneys Had Pleaded for His Release During Pandemic Because of Multiple Health Problems 

BAKERSFIELD — A 74-year-old immigrant with severe health problems making him especially vulnerable to COVID-19, died by suicide Sunday (5/17) at the Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield. 

Choung Won Ahn, who had diabetes, hypertension and several heart-related issues, had been held in Mesa Verde since February 21. In March, a group of attorneys made an urgent plea to release Ahn and others with serious pre-existing health problems because of the high probability they could contract COVID-19 while in detention.

But Ahn’s repeated pleas to be released were rejected by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Ahn’s immigration attorneys at Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland said they notified of their client’s death by Department of Homeland Security officials.

“We are processing, and we are very emotionally upset,” said Ahn’s brother, Young Ahn. “We are angry. He did not deserve to be treated this way. He’s a human being, but to them, he’s just a number. There are other people in the same situation. It shouldn’t be happening again”

As far back as March, a consortium of attorneys had made emergency requests for Ahn’s release. 

“The risk of contracting COVID-19 in congregate settings is very high,” wrote Jordan Wells, staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, in a March letter to ICE. “Despite an overwhelming consensus of public health experts…you have failed to release people like a 74-year-old man with chronic respiratory problems.” 

Over the past month, in response to a lawsuit filed by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the ACLU Foundations of Northern California and Southern California, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) of the San Francisco Bay Area, and the law firms of Lakin & Wille LLP and Cooley LLP, a group of detainees with serious health problems have been  released. Tragically, Ahn was not among them.

“We are deeply saddened by Mr. Ahn’s death,” said Manohar Raju, the San Francisco Public Defender. “Mr. Ahn was particularly medically vulnerable and should have been released by ICE to his family, particularly given the grave risks of COVID in ICE detention centers. ICE must stop hiding behind their ‘business as usual’ approach to mass detention.”

Priya Patel, Supervising Attorney with Centro Legal de la Raza, said: “We are devastated and angered by Mr. Ahn’s death. They knew that he was medically vulnerable. They knew that he had a history of mental illness. His life was in their hands. His death cannot be in vain. Authorities must learn from Mr. Ahn’s unnecessary and painful death, and immediately stop caging other vulnerable people.”

Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project, said: “This tragedy was senseless and preventable. Suicides in ICE detention have increased to disturbing highs under this administration — and that was before COVID-19. ICE is now detaining approximately 28,000 people; many have reported receiving almost no official information about the pandemic. Make no mistake: ICE and the administration are responsible for this death. No one should be held in civil detention during a pandemic.”