A Closer Look: During COVID-19 Pandemic, the ACLU Remains Vigilant

Letters sent to various organizations and institutions authored by ACLU-SDIC and others.

By Edward Sifuentes

SAN DIEGO – The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives of millions of people around the world. It has been especially devastating for the most vulnerable in our society: people of color, people who are incarcerated and people who have no home where they can shelter in place.

Our government leaders have taken difficult measures to protect people’s health, safety and well-being during this unprecedented public health emergency. But as governments take these measures, they must also safeguard people’s civil rights and liberties.

This is why the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLUF-SDIC) and many other ACLU affiliates around the country in mid-March began sending letters to local, state and federal officials to make sure our governments’ responses were data-driven, scientifically justified, equitable and no more intrusive on civil liberties than absolutely necessary. In total, ACLUF-SDIC sent or signed on to more than 15 letters between March 11 and April 21.

For example, ACLUF-SDIC sent letters calling on San Diego County and Imperial County public health officials to address potential inequities in their responses. The letters also offer recommendations to mitigate these inequities, such as collecting demographic data of COVID-19 testing, positive cases, deaths and hospitalizations, to help detect any racial disparities in access to health resources and health care.

“Our objective in sending these letters was to ensure local governments’ responses were centered on meeting the needs of the region’s most vulnerable people and provided an equitable, inclusive and efficient process for all,” said Christie Hill, deputy advocacy director of the ACLUF-SDIC. ‘The pandemic has exposed deeply rooted racism and health care disparities nationwide. It’s important that the responses developed by our leaders recognize and address these disparities. To do otherwise means lives could be endangered and lost.”

To send these letters, the ACLUF-SDIC partnered at times with other local organizations or with other ACLU affiliates.

For example, on March 29 the ACLU-SDIC joined local partners, including Pillars of the Community and Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association, to send a letter to San Diego County officials urging a reduction in the number of people who are incarcerated to relieve over-crowding and reduce the potential spread of COVID-19.

The letter noted that “an outbreak in our jails and detention facilities could be swift and deadly, not just for inmates, but for our communities.” In short, protecting the people inside these facilities also protects the entire region because staff enter and leave these sites daily and can as easily introduce the virus into the detained population as spread it from the facility to their own families and these communities in which they live. As of May 19, 263 people out of about 4000, or less than seven percent, in San Diego jails had been tested for COVID-19.

The ACLU of California, which is made up of the San Diego & Imperial Counties, Southern California and Northern California affiliates, raised similar concerns in letters to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about people detained in the agency’s Otay Mesa Detention Center and Imperial Regional Detention Facility.

Unfortunately, fears of an outbreak came true when it was reported that the Otay Mesa Detention Center was the site of the largest outbreak of COVID-19 in an immigration detention facility. Otay Mesa was also the site where the first immigration detainee was held before he died from COVID-19 on May 6.

Data released by public health experts shows this novel coronavirus is having a disproportionate impact on people of color, people with limited access to healthcare, and people with little or no income. The decisions elected officials and law enforcement leaders make today must carefully consider these disparities to protect people’s rights and not put vulnerable people at greater risk of illness and death.

Protecting people’s rights is why when an Oceanside activist told ACLUF-SDIC’s legal staff that law enforcement officers in San Diego’s north county were citing homeless people for violating the state’s “stay-at-home” order, our attorneys sent letters to several cities, including Carlsbad, Encinitas and Oceanside, inquiring whether the reports were true.

“We have long been concerned when city and county officials and law enforcement agencies attempt to deal with our housing crisis by acting as though people who are experiencing homelessness are the problem,” said Jonathan Markovitz, an ACLUF-SDIC staff attorney who wrote the letters to the cities. “Criminalizing people who are unhoused – citing or even arresting them for engaging in basic life-sustaining activities like sleeping in public spaces when there are no available beds – is cruel and unproductive. It can also be unconstitutional. So, when community members told us that several north county cities were citing people for violating the governor’s stay-at-home order, we wrote to let them know that, if those reports were accurate, this was inappropriate policing.”

Officials with each of the cities responded saying their officers had not cited people for things such as “unlawful camping” since the state’s stay-at-home order went into effect on March 19 and would not issue such citations while the order was in effect.

“While we hope all jurisdictions within San Diego and Imperial counties will refrain from criminalizing people who are experiencing homelessness through the duration of the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, there are troubling signs that this may not be the case,” Markovitz said. “So, we need to be vigilant. We’ll continue to monitor this situation through our local community partners to make sure law enforcement officials keep their word.”

The ACLUF-SDIC’s concerns over civil rights and civil liberties do not end there.

On March 13, the ACLU of California sent a letter to school officials urging them to adopt policies to minimize the impact of school closures on their communities and to proactively support their most vulnerable and under-resourced students. The ACLU national office asked Congress to provide billions of dollars in funding as part of the next COVID-19 relief package to meet the broadband access and technology needs of students, people with low income and other impacted individuals.

“The bottom line is that we know extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures,” said Norma Chavez-Peterson, executive director of the ACLUF-SDIC. “But we cannot allow government actions, even during this pandemic, to exacerbate deeply rooted inequities in our community, whether in health care, education, the justice system or any other aspect of our society. The ACLU will remain vigilant and we will not hesitate to step in and take action whenever necessary.”

For more information on the ACLUF-SDIC’s response to the COVID-19 emergency, visit: https://www.aclusandiego.org/covid-19/.

Edward Sifuentes is senior media and communications strategist for the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties.