The COVID-19 pandemic poses an acute threat to the health and safety of people in congregate settings—places where large groups of people live, eat, and share common spaces in close proximity to one another. The populations at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) detention centers across the country are no exception. Countless detained persons and staff tested positive for COVID-19 early on during the pandemic because ICE ignored the warnings of its own medical experts and otherwise refused to take common-sense measures to protect the lives of people in its custody. 

Unsurprisingly, these failures manifested in San Diego and Imperial Counties early in 2020. The pandemic swept through the Otay Mesa Detention Center (“OMDC”) early on during the pandemic, at one point becoming the earliest and largest outbreak in all ICE detention centers in the country. OMDC regrettably also became the site of the first death due to COVID-19 in ICE custody when Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia tragically lost his life to the virus after ICE refused to release him.

Due to ICE’s refusal to release people threatened by COVID-19, we filed a class action on April 21, 2020, to demand a drastic reduction in the number of persons detained at OMDC and the Imperial Regional Detention Facility (“IRDF”). We sought an emergency order for immediate release of medically vulnerable people from OMDC, given the uncontrollable outbreak that had taken hold of the facility.

On April 30, the court certified a class of medically vulnerable people at OMDC and issued a temporary restraining order directing ICE to release class members. The temporary restraining order resulted in release of nearly 100 medically vulnerable people from OMDC in a matter of weeks. The court later denied our motion for a preliminary injunction, which would have extended the protections at OMDC, holding that the measures taken by defendants sufficiently reduced the risks. Despite an outbreak at IRDF, the court also denied our motion for immediate release of medically vulnerable persons from that facility. On October 19, 2020, the court denied ICE and its private contractors’ motion to dismiss the case and decertify the OMDC medically vulnerable subclass. The case entered discovery and is currently temporarily stayed, with Defendants reporting a defined set of data relevant to the case at regular intervals.

Press release: ACLU Sues for Drastic Reduction in Population of Overcrowded Otay Mesa, Imperial Detention Centers | ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties | The ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties fights for individual rights and fundamental freedoms for all. (

Complaint: Microsoft Word - 2020 04 21 Class Cplt Final (




Monika Y. Langarica, Bardis Vakili, Jonathan Markovitz

Date filed

April 21, 2020


Southern District of California, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals



Case number

20-cv-0756 (S.D. Cal.)