Innovation Law Lab’s Anticarceral Legal Organizing (AcLO) Program works with migrants detained at immigration detention facilities across the US, including the Imperial Regional Detention Facility in California’s Imperial County near the US-Mexico border. Many of the migrants detained at Imperial who our staff and partners have spoken with report serious health problems due to longstanding problems with noxious air, contaminated water, toxic dust and mold in the detention center, which is run by ICE and the private prison company Management and Training Corporation (MTC).
Nine people currently detained at Imperial decided to take action by submitting a federal complaint denouncing these health risks to the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the US Department of Homeland Security. We joined with Desert Support for Asylum Seekers, EARTHJUSTICE, Freedom For Immigrants, the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity and the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice to submit the complaint to the federal agency on behalf of the migrants.
“We are breathing in sewage and manure fumes constantly due to the nonfunctional air ventilation system,” said Ramon Dominguez Gonzalez, who has been in ICE detention at Imperial for over three years. “On top of that, the water we drink tastes like bleach, and there is mold growing in our cells. Many of us here suffer from constant headaches, stomach aches, and asthma. We urge federal and county officials to help us and force MTC to take immediate action.”
The complaint comes on the heels of previously documented human rights abuses rampant at Imperial. In December 2020, the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a 34-page report identifying violations of ICE detention standards, highlighting the “poor conditions” that “endangered the health and safety of detainees.” The OIG said individuals were held in administrative segregation for some 23 hours a day and that two men had been held in such isolation for more than 300 days. One month later, in January 2021, the California Department of Justice issued a report that also criticized MTC for imposing “extremely restrictive” conditions on people in administrative segregation at Imperial and lacking adequate mental health services.
“Migrants at Imperial are subjected to uniquely dangerous living conditions due to a combination of poor ventilation and air filtration at the facility, as well as the toxic environmental pollution in Imperial County, which includes high levels of deadly air pollutants like ozone and particulate matter,” said Rashmi Joglekar, Earthjustice’s Toxic Exposure and Health Program staff scientist. “These pollutants have been linked to devastating health impacts, even at short-term, low levels of exposure, including respiratory distress, cardiovascular disease, and premature death.”
Meanwhile, there is a COVID-19 outbreak at the detention center. As of January 20, nine of 12 units were under quarantine, and ICE reported 52 confirmed cases. What is more, detained migrants, including some complainants, say they have witnessed in the last two weeks how at least one MTC employee was ordered to stay at work despite looking visibly sick.
The organizations supporting the filing of the complaint, joined the complainants in urging DHS to immediately address health safety, investigate the contaminated water, mold, toxic air, and dust at Imperial; terminate the contract between ICE and MTC; and release the immigrants from detention to their communities and loved ones.