A coalition of immigrant advocacy groups is alleging neglectful conduct by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and private prison company GEO Group at the immigrant detention center in Adelanto, leading to three separate incidents that they say harmed detainees inside the facility. KVCR’s Benjamin Purper reports the groups are calling for Adelanto to be shut down, while ICE denies any neglect and maintains that it’s following all proper guidelines.
“We call for ICE to release all immigrants inside Adelanto,” says Lizbeth Abeln, Deportation Defense-Programs Manager at the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice. The group is part of the Shutdown Adelanto Coalition of advocacy groups calling for the release of all detainees.
There are three separate but related incidents that have heightened the Shutdown Adelanto Coalition’s calls for immigrant detainees at the facility to be released.
The first involves Martin Vargas-Arellano, an immigrant from Mexico who was detained inside Adelanto for approximately two years before his death earlier this month.
Vargas-Arellano had multiple health conditions that made him vulnerable to COVID-19. He contracted the virus in December 2020 and never fully recovered.
He suffered a stroke on March 3 and was released from ICE custody two days later. He then died on March 8.
“I believe they deliberately misled me,” says Margaret Hellerstein, who represented Vargas-Arellano. She says weeks went by before she found out he had died because ICE never told her.
“I just keep coming back to the fact that I was on the phone with the deportation officer on March 15 begging for information about where Martin could have gone, worried that he was wandering the streets, and meanwhile he had been dead for a week. I don’t know who knew what or when, but that should not have happened.”
Hellerstein says this failure to notify her and that fact that he was so sick when they released him amounts to an attempted cover-up on ICE’s part.
ICE declined to comment on this case, citing pending litigation.
The second incident involving ICE detainees in Adelanto has to do with an outbreak of H. pylori, a bacterial infection which can cause stomach ulcers, gastritis and stomach cancer.
Lizbeth Abeln says the Shutdown Adelanto Coalition is alleging that unsanitary water inside the facility is spreading H. pylori to detainees.
“We have at least three reports confirmed, but we have recorded a history of this H. pylori infection throughout the years, so it’s very disturbing and this is all due to the unsanitary conditions,” Abeln says.
In response to this allegation, an ICE official told KVCR that the agency “is committed to ensuring detainees are treated humanely, protected from harm, provided appropriate medical care, and receive the rights and protections to which they are entitled. Detention standards further protect detainees by maintaining high facility standards of cleanliness, practices for safety and security, and policies and procedures for grievances.”
Furthermore, the official said, a recent “facility inspection conducted independently by the Office of Detention Oversight noted zero deficiencies for safety or care.”
Margaret Hellerstein, though, has issues with that facility inspection.
“The ICE Office of Professional Responsibility Office of Detention Oversight is not an independent organization, it's an organization under ICE. So it seems a little bit disingenuous to say that ICE conducted a review of ICE's own facility and determined it was fine. To me that is like saying the prison guards reported that the prison was perfectly fine.”
Also, Hellerstein says, the inspection was remote, and the Office of Detention Oversight spoke to only 12 detainees out of hundreds.
“The fact that they talked to 12 detainees out of, at that time I don't know how many but hundreds, who made complaints, just not the specific complaints that they're talking about, to send that email saying we found zero deficiencies but in fact detainees did complain about things, and they only talked to 12 of them, and it wasn't an on-site inspection? To me that is disingenuous at best,” Hellerstein says.
Medical records obtained by KVCR confirm that at least one detainee inside Adelanto contracted H. pylori after the ODO conducted its inspection in September.
Lastly, there’s the report from the Environmental Protection Agency that concluded that GEO Group, the company that operates the Adelanto facility, improperly administered the chemical disinfectant HDQ Neutral to detainees without proper ventilation several times a day.
The EPA based its reports on interviews with GEO staff and detainees and found that staff and detainees were instructed to use HDQ Neutral as often as every 30 minutes and at twice the concentration allowed for disinfectant use.
In an emailed statement, a GEO Group spokesperson said that HDQ was used at Adelanto “always in accordance with the manufacturer’s guidelines” over a period of nearly 10 years.
The statement goes on to say that during this time, “there was no indication of confirmed medical claims associated with the use of HDQ Neutral. HDQ Neutral is also widely used in hospitals, nursing homes, youth centers, and colleges and universities. At the present time, a product other than HDQ is being utilized at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center.”
For the Shutdown Adelanto Coalition, the EPA warning adds more fuel to their call for all detainees in the facility to be released. After a court order forced ICE and GEO to reduce the population of Adelanto significantly due to COVID-19, Lizbeth Abeln hopes the remaining detainees will be released as well.
“There’s a really good opportunity for those folks that are remaining to be released because no one should be held under those conditions,” Abeln says.
The Adelanto facility has seen 270 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of March 21.