A quartet of Venezuelan refugees detained at the Torrance County Detention Facility have filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement over conditions at the holding center near Estancia.

The unnamed plaintiffs allege in the lawsuit filed in Federal District Court that the facility twice failed government inspection and should no longer be used to detain refugees.

The suit also targets Alejandro Mayorkas as the Secretary of Homeland Security; Patrick J. Lechleitner as the Deputy Director and Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Director; Ricardo A. Wong as the ICE Deputy Assistant Director, Oversight Compliance and Acquisition Division; Monica S. Burke as the ICE Acting Assistant Director of Custody Management; Brittany Tobias as the ICE Contracting Officer and Mary De Anda-Ybarra as the Field Office Director for ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations in El Paso, Texas. 

The facility owner/operator CoreCivic also was recently named in a wrongful death lawsuit following the suicide of one of the detainees.

ICE officials did not respond to an email seeking comment. 

The lawsuit claims the facility “was dangerously understaffed and was failing to provide a safe living environment to detained individuals. The grossly and obviously inadequate conditions caused TCDF to fail its 2021 overall performance evaluation.”

CoreCivic spokesperson Brian Todd gave a general statement about the lawsuit and its allegations:

“CoreCivic plays a valued but limited role in America’s immigration system, which we have done for every administration – Democrat and Republican – for nearly 40 years,” he said. ” “Our sole job has been and continues to be to help the government solve problems in ways it could not do alone – to help manage unprecedented humanitarian crises, dramatically improve the standard of care for vulnerable people, and meet critical public safety needs efficiently and innovatively.”

Additionally, the inspection report “confirmed that staffing and training deficiencies that ICE had known about since late 2020 remained uncorrected,” according to the lawsuit.

And, the “facility medical staffing is not in line with the agreed upon contractual staffing plan,” and “the facility has critical medical staffing shortages,” while “the Chief Medical Officer has not been dedicated to the Torrance contract,” the lawsuit claimed.

The inspection report also “failed the Food Service standard altogether and that TCDF was failing to “ensure a safe, sanitary, and hygienic food service operation,”  according to the lawsuit, adding “food was left exposed to pests and/or environmental contaminants, thermometers were not sanitized, and kitchen equipment was visibly rusting out and had not been cleaned.”

These issues have been symptomatic of ongoing problems, the lawsuit claimed, highlighting incidents during the pandemic.

“During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, TCDF failed to provide detained individuals with adequate supplies of masks, cleaning supplies, and hand soap; inform them about COVID-19 precautions; or allow them to engage in social distancing. In May 2020, detained individuals began a peaceful hunger strike to express concern about these insufficient precautions,” the lawsuit read. “Rather than correct these deficiencies and follow the (Performance-Based National Detention Standards), TCDF personnel attacked the hunger-striking individuals with oleoresin capsicum spray (also known as pepper spray) in a confined space, and failed to properly decontaminate the affected individuals, resulting in continued harm for days after the attack.”

A subsequent inspection in 2022 showed that “independent findings by (Homeland Security’s) Inspector General and ICE’s own Contracting Officer confirmed beyond any doubt that TCDF remained an unsafe, unhealthy, and dangerous environment that was wholly unfit for continued use.”

In February 2022, “ICE reported that the Inspector General had found very poor conditions, including “unhealthy conditions, staff shortages, and detainees in segregation who had not been let out for a week,” according to the lawsuit.

And in March 2022, Homeland Security inspector general “issued an urgent and unprecedented “Management Alert” to ICE … recommend[ing] the immediate relocation of all detainees from the facility” due to “egregious conditions,” and that that the ongoing staffing shortages “have led to safety risks and unsanitary living conditions,” the lawsuit claims.

A later 2022 inspection by a contracted third-party was not properly conducted and of no merit, the lawsuit further claims, adding that under the federal, two-strikes mandate, the facility should no longer have been used to detain refugees.

“We continue to hear claims and allegations about our Torrance County Detention Facility (TCDF) that are false and misleading,” he added. “The reality is that we provide a safe, humane and appropriate environment for those entrusted to us and are constantly striving to deliver an even better standard of care. It’s worth pointing out that local and federal elected officials have made numerous unannounced inspections to the TCDF and have echoed these sentiments.”

Additionally, “TCDF, and all our facilities, are subject to multiple layers of oversight and are monitored very closely by our government partners to ensure our full compliance with policies and procedures. ICE has repeatedly audited TCDF with starkly different conclusions that support the facility’s sound and continued operation,” he said.

The lawsuit seeks the court to assume jurisdiction over the matter, vacate the 2022 third-party “meets standards” certification and “enjoin ICE from using federal funds to continue the contract for detention at TCDF; and enjoin ICE from continuing to detain Class members at TCDF.”

Glen Rosales has been a freelance, feature and sports reporter for the Albuquerque Journal and independent news outlets. He is currently the editor of The Independent.

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