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Lawsuit filed for first COVID-19 death in immigration custody

By Kate Morrissey
The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS

SAN DIEGO - The family of Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, who died in immigration custody after contracting the coronavirus during an outbreak at Otay Mesa Detention Center, has sued the federal government as well as the private prison company in charge of the facility.

Escobar Mejia was the first person to die in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement because of COVID-19. Eight in total have died from the virus since the pandemic began.

The lawsuit, filed in the Southern District of California by Escobar Mejia's three siblings, alleges negligence, deliberate indifference to serious health and safety needs and wrongful death.

The complaint argues that officials held Escobar Mejia in conditions that they "knew would expose him to a deadly disease."

"CoreCivic deprived him of adequate personal protective equipment, proper social distance, and appropriate treatment, all with the knowledge and participation of ICE and its officials," the complaint says. "His death did not have to happen."

ICE, the agency responsible for immigration detention, and CoreCivic, the private prison company that owns and operates Otay Mesa Detention Center, said that they do not comment on pending litigation.

CoreCivic referred back to its statement at the time of Escobar Mejia's death.

"We extend our heartfelt sympathy to this individual's loved ones," the company said at the time.

Both ICE and CoreCivic have defended themselves against criticism from detainees, attorneys and even some CoreCivic staff about their handling of an outbreak at the facility in the spring that infected more than 200 detainees and inmates and left Escobar Mejia dead. They've said that they followed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention throughout the pandemic.

Escobar Mejia, who died shortly before his 58th birthday, was at high risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms because he was diabetic, and he had high blood pressure and heart problems. He had already lost his right foot due to complications from diabetes.

He had lived in the United States for about 40 years after fleeing the civil war in El Salvador with his family. Unlike his siblings, who are either U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, he hadn't managed to get a green card because of some trouble he got into when he was younger and hanging with the "wrong crowd," according to an immigration attorney who previously worked on his case.

He had been taken into custody at Otay Mesa Detention Center in January 2020 after being arrested by Border Patrol while riding in a friend's car near Campo. He already had a pending immigration case since 2012 in Los Angeles, where he lived with his sister, that had a hearing coming up in October. ICE decided to keep him in custody and move his case down to the court at Otay Mesa.

On April 15, an immigration judge denied him bond, calling him a flight risk.

For much of the spring, Otay Mesa Detention Center had the highest number of COVID-19 cases of any immigration detention facility in the country.

The lawsuit calls out a list of issues that it says contributed to the death of Escobar Mejia including overcrowding at the facility and a delay in reducing its population after the pandemic began, staff not being trained in infectious disease management, detainees being given used rags to clean their housing units, soap shortages in the first months of the pandemic, initial prohibitions on staff wearing masks and no social distancing.

The lawsuit also faults the federal government for the decision not to immediately take Escobar Mejia to a hospital when he became symptomatic around April 17. Instead, he was given ibuprofen, the lawsuit says.

The kitchen at the facility, normally staffed by detainees, shut down as the outbreak spread inside the facility. That meant that Escobar Mejia was given sandwiches for three meals a day as his body tried to fight the virus.

On April 24, about a week after he began to show symptoms, Escobar Mejia was taken to a hospital and put on a ventilator.

"By the time defendant transported him to the hospital, Mr. Escobar was gasping for air and dying," the lawsuit says. "He received a blood transfusion but he had already been too weakened by the virus."

After Escobar Mejia's death, detainees close to him "tacked letters to his door, apologies to his sister Rosa for failing her brother. Inside the room, his dried vomit still caked the floor," the lawsuit says.

The only contact Escobar Mejia's siblings received after his death, the lawsuit says, was from the funeral home demanding $1,700 to cremate their brother.

The lawsuit calls for a jury trial to determine how much money might be owed to the family if the siblings are successful with the claim.

The entrance to Otay Mesa Detention Center.