BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Immigrants detained at the Mesa Verde ICE detention center in Bakersfield and the Yuba County Jail have reached a settlement in a class action lawsuit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Geo Group, which operates the Bakersfield facility.

Under the terms of the settlement, ICE will be forced to preserve safety measures to protect detainees from COVID-19, and its authority to rearrest people released during the course of the lawsuit will be limited, according to a news release issued by the ACLU of Northern California. It also provides three years of health and safety protections for those still in custody.

“This settlement mandates important, potentially life-saving measures that will reduce the spread of COVID in ICE detention centers, and also limits the number of people in custody in these facilities during this pandemic,” Sean Riordan, senior staff attorney for the immigrants rights program at the ACLU of Northern California, said in the release. “During this dangerous pandemic, ICE officials should be doing everything possible to release people from detention facilities.”

According to the settlement, ICE must pay $4 million in plaintiffs’ attorney fees.

The settlement says ICE “will make best efforts to not re-detain” immigrants released while the lawsuit was ongoing unless they pose a threat to public safety or national security, or violate other terms of release such as failing to appear for an immigration court hearing or getting arrested on new charges.

The suit, filed in 2020, asked for the immediate release of detainees from unsafe conditions which endanger their health and lives in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. 

It said immigrants at both facilities were sleeping in packed dormitory rooms on bunk beds bolted to the floor only a few feet from each other. They also use shared bathrooms and line up to get meals in cafeterias.

“When COVID hit, I was terrified because the government was crowding so many of us together in such a dangerous place and not doing anything at all to protect us from the virus,” said Brenda Ruiz Tovar, one of the plaintiffs released from custody, said in the release. “I am so grateful to have been free for almost two years, and able to support my son and my family and stay healthy.”

A coalition of legal organizations represented the plaintiffs, including the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the ACLU Foundations of Northern California and Southern California, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Lakin & Wille LLP, and Cooley LLP.