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California Governor Should Support Bill to Stop ICE Transfers

Human Rights Watch Letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom

Governor Gavin Newsom
1303 10th Street, Suite 1173
Sacramento, CA 95814

Subject: Support Budget Trailer Bill to Stop ICE Transfers

Dear Governor Newsom,

I write on behalf of Human Rights Watch to urge your office to suspend Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) transfers from California state prisons and jails by supporting the Senate and Assembly’s budget trailer bills. A statewide suspension of ICE transfers would save lives of people in custody and protect broader communities across the state. California should not spend resources on policies that put immigrants in harm’s way, and should instead do everything in its power to reduce the number of people in dangerous immigration detention facilities with a long track record of providing inadequate medical care.[1]

Human Rights Watch is a non-profit, independent organization and the largest international human rights organization based in the United States. We investigate allegations of human rights violations in more than 90 countries around the world, including in the United States, by interviewing witnesses, gathering information from various sources, issuing detailed reports, and advocating for systemic change.

Human Rights Watch has called upon state government leaders to immediately stop transfers of people who have completed their sentences in or earned release from state prisons and county jails into the custody of federal immigration authorities.[2] As we recently documented in a joint report with the American Civil Liberties Union and National Immigrant Justice Center, people in ICE detention facilities are held in conditions that are inhumane, unsanitary, and dangerous, and where access to medical care is historically paltry – even before the Covid-19 pandemic.[3] We have also called for a moratorium on immigration enforcement during the pandemic, recognizing that ICE’s detention and deportation practices have spread Covid-19 around the United States and to other countries.[4]

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls for transfers among prisons, jails, and detention facilities to occur only if “absolutely necessary.”[5] ICE, however, has continued to transfer people from prisons and jails to detention centers and between detention centers, increasing the risk of rapid spread of the virus. Six out of the ten people who had tested positive for the novel coronavirus at ICE’s Adelanto Detention Facility as of early July 2020 were transferred from California prisons.[6] A Reuters investigation found that half of ICE transfers in April to June involved detainees either moved from centers with Covid-19 cases to centers with no known cases, or from centers with no cases to those with confirmed cases.[7] The largest outbreak at an ICE facility in Farmville, Virginia–currently under investigation by the CDC[8]–began with a transfer of 74 people from Florida and Arizona, of whom more than half later tested positive for the novel coronavirus.[9]

ICE has shown it is unable to protect the people in its facilities during this major public health crisis. At the Mesa Verde Detention Facility, operated by Geo Group in Bakersfield, California, a Covid-19 outbreak spread for weeks while officials refused to test detainees for the virus, according to media reports.[10] In response, a federal judge recently ordered ICE to immediately test all people in detention and staff at the facility.[11] Of the 104 people currently detained at the facility, at least half have already tested positive.[12]

In his order, the judge declared, “This conduct by the defendants [ICE and Geo Group] has put the detainees at serious risk of irreparable harm. The defendants have also jeopardized the safety of their own employees. And they have endangered the community at large.”[13]

These recent developments at Mesa Verde are not surprising, given that ICE practices concerning Covid-19 have already been identified as deficient by the Department of Homeland Security’s own watchdog agency, the Office of Inspector General.[14]

People who are released from prisons and jails are released because they have completed their sentences or have earned early release through demanding parole processes. They should not then be further punished and exposed to abuse through transfers to dangerous, poorly run facilities while they await civil proceedings in a deportation system with a documented lack of due process and serious failures to recognize basic rights, such as the right to family unity.[15] At this time, transfers to ICE represent not only the risk of permanent family separation and exile, but also the threat of a potentially life-threatening illness. By suspending transfers to ICE, you can ensure that people released from prisons and jails are able to return to their homes and communities and fight any deportation case that might be filed against them in safety and with the support of their families.

Once again, we urge you to support the Senate and Assembly’s budget trailer bills and immediately suspend ICE transfers from state prisons and jails.

Thank you for your prompt consideration and please do not hesitate to reach out with any questions, concerns, or comments. We would be happy to meet with your office to further discuss our reporting on abuses in immigration detention.


Grace Meng
Senior Researcher, US Program
Human Rights Watch

[1] “US: COVID-19 Threatens People Behind Bars,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 12, 2020, 

[2] “Coalition of Rights Groups Urge Los Angeles County Sheriff and Board of Supervisors to Stop Transfers to Federal Immigration Authorities and the Adelanto Immigration Prison,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 19, 2020,; “Human Rights Watch Amicus Letter in Support of a Petition for Writ of Mandate,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 1, 2020,; “US: Free Detained Asylum Seekers in Pandemic,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 15, 2020,

[3] “US: New Report Shines Spotlight on Abuses and Growth in Immigrant Detention Under Trump,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 30, 2020,; Human Rights Watch, Code Red:

The Fatal Consequences of Dangerously Substandard Medical Care in Immigration Detention (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2018), 

[4] “US: Suspend Deportations During Pandemic,” Human Rights Watch news release, June 4, 2020,

[5] US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Interim Guidance on Management of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in Correctional and Detention Facilities,” updated July 22, 2020, (accessed August 26, 2020).

[6] Rebecca Plevin, “At Adelanto detention center, 6 of 10 people with COVID-19 transferred there from prisons,” Desert Sun, July 3, 2020, (accessed August 26, 2020).

[7] Mica Rosenberg et al., “US Immigration officials spread coronavirus with detainee transfers,” Reuters, July 17, 2020, (accessed August 26, 2020).

[8] Gregory S. Schneider and Antonio Olivo, “Federal scientists begin addressing massive covid-19 outbreak at immigration detention center in Virginia,” Washington Post, August 10, 2020, (accessed August 28, 2020).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Doug Smith, “Federal judge orders COVID-19 testing at Bakersfield immigration detention facility,” Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2020, (accessed August 26, 2020).

[11] Order Granting Motion for Temporary Restraining Order, Zepeda Rivas v. Jennings, U.S. Dist. Ct. N.D. California, Docket No. 20-cv-02761-VC, (accessed August 26, 2020).

[12] Farida Jhabvala Romero, “Half of All Detainees at Bakersfield ICE Facility Have Tested Positive for COVID-19,” KQED, (accessed August 26, 2020).

[13] Order Granting Motion for Temporary Restraining Order, Zepeda Rivas v. Jennings, U.S. Dist. Ct. N.D. California, Docket No. 20-cv-02761-VC, (accessed August 28, 2020).

[14] US Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General, “Early Experiences with COVID-19 at ICE Detention Facilities,” June 18, 2020, (accessed August 26, 2020).

[15] Human Rights Watch, The Deported: Immigrants Uprooted from the Country They Call Home (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2017),

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