Los Angeles Times

ICE detainees allege retaliatio­n

Five say they were transferre­d from San Diego to Nevada after criticizin­g conditions.

- By Kate Morrissey

Weeks after writing an op-ed for the San Diego Union-Tribune about his experience in immigratio­n custody, Erik Mercado, who was being held at Otay Mesa Detention Center, was suddenly moved to a different facility in the middle of the night, he said.

He and other detainees were sent with shackles on their waists and legs on a bus to Nevada, Mercado said. He said they weren’t able to use the bathroom during the entire trip.

On the way, all he could think about was that he wouldn’t be able to get the medical treatment he was supposed to have for a newly diagnosed liver condition, he said.

His mind went to the possibilit­y of dying in custody. “I was thinking the worst,” he said in a phone call with the Union-Tribune.

A collective of seven immigrant rights organizati­ons helped Mercado and four other men file a complaint last week with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, alleging that their transfers were retaliatio­n for their activism while in immigratio­n custody.

The sudden move of these five detainees appears to be part of a larger pattern of retaliator­y transfers that attempt to silence people in immigratio­n custody who try to raise awareness about conditions, according to the organizati­on Freedom for Immigrants, which works to end immigratio­n detention.

As a detainee, Mercado in particular has long advocated for better medical care, including for access to the treatment he needed.

In a report published in mid-February, Freedom for Immigrants found that Immigratio­n and Customs Enforcemen­t frequently transfers people who have participat­ed in complaints, spoken with media or organized hunger strikes about facility conditions.

The group found that many of these detainees experience­d “circular” transfers, or being transferre­d multiple times between the same facilities. It also found that the conditions during these transfers could amount to torture.

A similar complaint was made about Otay Mesa in August 2021 when several organizati­ons alleged that immigratio­n detainees faced several kinds of retaliatio­n at five detention locations, including the San Diego facility, after they protested conditions.

Immigratio­n and Customs Enforcemen­t did not respond to a request for comment. In agency documentat­ion about transfer procedures, it says they can happen “for a variety of reasons” and “will not be retaliator­y.”

CoreCivic, the private prison company that owns and operates Otay Mesa Detention Center, denied the claims and allegation­s related to its facility made in the complaint.

“The dedicated profession­als at our Otay Mesa Detention Center work to provide immigratio­n detainees a variety of services, from comprehens­ive medical and mental health care to faithbased support and access to legal resources while they prepare for the next steps in their immigratio­n process,” said Brian Todd, public affairs manager for CoreCovic. “The reality is that we provide a safe, humane and appropriat­e environmen­t for those entrusted to us at this facility and are constantly striving to deliver an even better standard of care.”

Todd added that CoreCivic has no say in transfers, that the decision is entirely up to ICE. He also noted that the company could not comment on the medical treatment of any individual for privacy reasons.

After the transfer in November, Mercado found himself in a county jail in Pahrump, Nev., even though he is not in criminal custody. Immigratio­n is considered a civil legal matter, not a criminal one, but ICE often pays county jails to hold some of its detainees.

Capt. David Boruchowit­z of the Nye County Sheriff ’s Office, which operates the facility where Mercado is being held, said the office is investigat­ing allegation­s about the jail that are also made in the complaint. There were 55 ICE detainees being held there as of Wednesday, he said.

Mercado believes there are two reasons why he was abruptly moved. First, he has long been outspoken about conditions inside Otay Mesa Detention Center.

Mercado in particular has spoken with the UnionTribu­ne several times, including when fellow Otay Mesa detainee Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia became the first person in immigratio­n custody to die of COVID-19 in 2020. Mercado spoke again with the UnionTribu­ne about allegation­s of sexual misconduct against a guard at the facility, and he participat­ed in a complaint reported by the Union-Tribune over allegation­s of medical malpractic­e against a psychologi­st in Otay Mesa’s medical unit. He even was a co-author of an opinion piece for the Union-Tribune in which he discussed the alleged retaliatio­n for speaking up about conditions.

Mercado also believes he was moved so that ICE and CoreCivic could avoid paying to treat his worsening liver condition, which was caused by his hepatitis C that he says facility medical staff for years told him was under control.

“I believe there were several of [the transferre­d men] that needed urgent medical treatment,” Mercado said. “I was one of them.”

He said that every time he has been transferre­d, he has had to start over on his requests for medical attention, reliving the lengthy process for referrals to run the same tests he has already undergone.

Even before he left Otay Mesa on the day of the transfer, he said, he emphasized to officials that he had pending, urgent medical treatment. But his medical records were not transferre­d with him, according to the complaint, nor were the records of any of the other detainees. He pushed for the facility to request his records from Otay Mesa, but even after they arrived, he said, he wasn’t able to get the care he needed.

He said that after arriving at Nye County Detention Center, west of Las Vegas, he was told that the hospitals there won’t treat him.

“I asked [the ICE officer], ‘Well, then, why did you guys transfer me?’ and he said, ‘I don’t have an answer for that, but you’re not going to get treated in this state,’ ” Mercado said. “That’s one of the things that is very stressful and painful for me to deal with psychologi­cally and of course physically.”

He said that after his latest complaint about retaliatio­n was made public recently, facility officials told him that he would soon be taken to a hospital in Las Vegas for treatment.

Conditions at Nye County were shocking even to him — someone who has seen several immigratio­n detention facilities, according to the complaint. The complaint says that when he first arrived, there weren’t enough beds, so he had to sleep on the floor by the urinal.

He was also verbally attacked by a guard who discrimina­ted against him because of his religious beliefs as a Jewish person, he said. An official from the Immigratio­n Detention Ombudsman’s office happened to be present at the time, and the guard is no longer working at the facility, Mercado said.

He said he is feeling worn down by the system and the way it has treated him. He’s been in immigratio­n detention for more than three years.

“I feel like everybody is just not willing to listen to me or care for me,” he said right before the jail’s phone system abruptly ended the call with the Union-Tribune.

Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

 ?? Nelvin C. Cepeda San Diego Union-Tribune ?? THE OTAY MESA Detention Center in south San Diego, where immigrants awaiting court proceeding­s are housed. The sudden move of five detainees appears to be part of a larger pattern of retaliator­y transfers.
Nelvin C. Cepeda San Diego Union-Tribune THE OTAY MESA Detention Center in south San Diego, where immigrants awaiting court proceeding­s are housed. The sudden move of five detainees appears to be part of a larger pattern of retaliator­y transfers.

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