Facing noxious air and contaminated water, immigrants detained in Imperial ICE prison lodge new federal complaint

Advocacy groups demand Imperial Regional Detention Facility to release migrants amid exposure to toxic air, mold, and contaminated water


Alejandro Dávila Fragoso, adavila@earthjustice.org 

Today, nine immigrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention at the privately-owned Imperial Regional Detention Facility, filed a civil rights complaint with federal agencies in response to unsafe living conditions due to hazardous air, dust, mold, and drinking water contamination. According to the complaint, immigrants detained at Imperial experience difficulty breathing and suffer from headaches and gastrointestinal pains.

A coalition of civil rights and environmental organizations, in collaboration with the group of immigrants, submitted the complaint to the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Imperial County Board of Supervisors, and Management & Training Corporation (MTC), which owns and operates the detention center.

“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.

Unsafe living conditions are direct violations of ICE’s detention standards, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) laws and regulations, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, and the U.S. Constitution.

MTC, a private prison contractor based in Utah, has a record of abusing and neglecting immigrants in its prisons. In January 2021, advocates published a report on MTC’s Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, New Mexico, documenting myriad ​​medical issues and a lack of access to legal resources. In May 2021, MTC’s Bluebonnet Detention Center in Anson, Texas, was the site of one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the entire ICE detention system. And in August, Elba Maria Centeno Briones, a 37-year-old woman seeking asylum from Nicaragua, died from COVID-19 complications while in the custody of MTC’s El Valle Detention Facility, in Raymondville, Texas.

The coalition assisting the detained migrants includes Freedom for Immigrants, Innovation Law Lab, California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, Desert Support for Asylum Seekers, Earthjustice, and Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity.

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