Asif Qazi remembers when COVID-19 first broke out in the United States. Far from his family in the East Bay, locked in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Bakersfield, he watched the news of the pandemic on TV.
It was there, in the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center, that he saw a familiar face appear again and again on the screen: Governor Gavin Newsom. Qazi knew Newsom from the politician’s time in San Francisco.
An immigrant from Bangladesh, Qazi had been in the United States for nine years when Newsom took the mayor’s office. Then a teenager, Qazi watched as Newom defied homophobic state law and instructed city clerks to give same-sex couples marriage licenses. Now, the governor was in the news again, as he cancelled sporting events and large gatherings, before finally issuing California’s first-in-nation shelter-in-place order.
Inside detention, Qazi felt helpless to take the social distancing measures Newsom was calling for. In the massive bunk room, which he shared with over 70 other people, it was impossible to maintain six feet of separation while sleeping, to say nothing of eating or using the bathroom. Besides the cramped conditions, Qazi says the for-profit company that runs the detention center — the private prison behemoth Geo Group — did not initially take the virus seriously, and for weeks neither the men nor the guards were given masks or any other form of PPE. Little was done to stop the spread of the virus, as guards rotated in and out, and new transfers were funneled into Mesa Verde from other ICE facilities and California state prisons.
As the numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases steadily climbed in other California detention centers, Qazi started fearing for his life, and he joined a group of other detained immigrants working to raise public awareness.
In March, the men wrote an open letter to try to raise the alarm about their living conditions. They knew ICE and Geo would almost certainly ignore their demands, so the men addressed their plea to someone they thought might actually listen — someone who had shown his willingness to take a bold moral stand against entrenched power: Gavin Newsom.
“[The pandemic] will turn our detention into a death sentence,” the men wrote in their letter, which advocacy groups then shared with the governor’s office. It was the beginning of an unprecedented protest movement both inside and outside ICE detention to push California’s top official to take action on immigration jails in the state. Human rights organizations, like Cesar Chavez’s venerated United Farm Workers helped to amplify the demands, and celebrities like Diane Guerrero (one of the stars of Orange is the New Black) shared a video of the men in Unit C reading their letter on her Instagram. “Please watch, share, and tag @GavinNewsom to ask him to: (1) stop the expansion of ICE detention in California (2) halt ALL transfers to ICE,” she wrote in the caption.
However, Newsom has resisted taking action, and some advocates — many of them his supporters — are beginning to worry that the maverick former San Francisco mayor has lost his fire, and his willingness to stand up to power. Some of them wondered aloud if the governor, long understood to have presidential ambitions, was resisting taking a harder stand on ICE detention in order to preserve his chances in a 2024 general election. Whatever the case, Qazi and the others inside and outside detention are still pushing the governor to do more.
When Newsom’s office didn’t respond to their first letter, Qazi and his peers decided to take extreme action. They stopped eating. It was the first of multiple hunger strikes in ICE detention centers in California, with demands specifically addressed to Newsom.
“The goal is to have the governor and attorney general organize an investigation into these ICE facilities,” Qazi said by phone from the detention center, during one of the days he went without eating in early June. In a statement Qazi created for the men announcing their second and most recent hunger strike, which began on June 4, he wrote: “We will continue our protest until further attention is brought to these conditions, and until the Governor and the Attorney General of California begin an official investigation into all ICE detention facilities in California.”
The second hunger strike lasted almost a week.
Still locked in Mesa Verde, Qazi and the other men all more or less understand that Newsom is limited in his ability to control ICE — a federal agency squarely under President Donald Trump’s command, which operates independently of state governments. However, the men also know that the governor has been a lion in opposing the Trump regime.
From his first days in office, Newsom has been unafraid to clash with the federal government on matters involving immigration.
“While Trump attacks and disparages immigrants, California is working to ensure that every resident — regardless of immigration status — is given respect and the opportunity to contribute,” Newsom said in 2019, when he signed a set of bills protecting undocumented immigrants from disriminaiton.
More recently, Newsom has gone out of his way to support undocumented immigrants during the pandemic: In April, the governor approved millions in emergency relief aid for undocumented Californians who were unable to legally apply for unemployment and other benefits under the federal CARES Act. Qazi and his peers reasoned that Newsom might be willing to support undocumented people in detention.
Special laws passed in recent years in California grant the governor unprecedented influence over ICE detention: Unlike other states, Newsom’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, has the power to enter and investigate for-profit detention facilities under AB 103 (a law signed by then-Governor Jerry Brown in 2017). Given that over 95 percent of ICE detainees in California are held in private facilities, it gives the state government phenomenal oversight power.
It also means that, in the entire United States, the California government might be the last entity that can actually hold ICE accountable for its pandemic response. Immigrant rights advocates have been clear the Trump administration can’t be expected to actually serve as a watchdog for the agency.
“We want Newsom to shine a light on what’s going on here, and push for change,” Qazi says. “We need them to see how they are not enabling us detainees to stay safe enough during this pandemic.”
Back home in San Francisco, multiple prominent city leaders are calling on Newsom to go even further than an investigation: They want the governor to close ICE detention centers in the state, using the emergency powers granted to him during the pandemic.
The members of the left wing of the Democratic Party that adopted the city in Newsom’s wake have called for the former mayor to live up to his courageous legacy, and take action rather than ask permission. Current San Francisco supervisor Hillary Ronen, a former immigration attorney, and Chesa Boudin, the city’s new firebrand district attorney, have both demanded that Newsom close down private ICE detention centers.
While Newsom’s power to actually close private detention facilities in the state is in question, lawyers say there’s nothing currently stopping him from, at the very least, opening an investigation.
But Newsom and Becerra have not taken that action: No investigation has been started, and spokespeople from the governor’s office have argued that it’s up to the federal government, not California, to both investigate ICE detention and to release detainees.
“California continues to lead on immigration policies, however, when it comes to immigration detention, the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction in deciding whether people in immigration proceedings should be detained,” Vicky Waters, Newsom’s press secretary, wrote in a statement.
For Californians like Qazi in ICE detention, and hundreds of advocacy groups across the state, the passivity has been heartbreaking, especially from a politician many once considered to be a fearless ally of immigrants.
“We’re thrown back, because the fire is here in California, the organizing is here to take on private detention, and there is an actual crisis,” says Sandy Valenciano, a long-time immigrant organizer in the state who currently works with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “We see ourselves in Gavin and the [state] government in addressing these issues, and we want to support him in that. But now it almost feels like he’s in opposition to us. That’s something we’re sitting with now: We thought we were on the same team here.”
Qazi, who has lived in California since he was a child, knows Newsom’s record, and he still hopes the governor will take action.
“These are California values,” Qazi says. “This state is built by immigrants. I come from the Bay. Most cities in the Bay are sanctuary cities.”
Asif Qazi is a Californian. Though he was born in Bangladesh, Qazi has called East Berkeley home since he was 6. He came of age in the era of Mac Dre and E-40. He remembers the major moments of Bay Area history in the 2000s: 2004, when Gavin Newsom became mayor of San Francisco, and instructed city clerks to give gay couples marriage certificates, changing the course of the fight for LGBTQ rights in the US; the mid-aughts, when YouTube and Facebook took root in Silicon Valley, hypercharging gentrification; 2009, when Oscar Grant was killed by a Bart Police officer, kicking off waves of protests. He got married and had children. His whole life is still in the East Bay.
Qazi has been in ICE detention since February. That month, he and his lawyer voluntarily went into the federal agency’s San Francisco office, responding to a request to “answer questions.” While Qazi was there, ICE agents arrested him.
The beginning of Qazi’s life in America tracks with Gavin Newsom’s political career. In 1995, the same year Qazi’s family arrived in the US, Newsom volunteered for Willie Brown’s mayoral campaign, hosting a successful fundraiser for Brown at his winery. When Brown won, he appointed Newsom to a seat on San Francisco’s Parking and Traffic Commission. That humble seat was the start of Newsom’s political rise. Next came president of the Parking and Traffic Commission; then Brown appointed him to a vacated San Francisco supervisor position (the youngest member ever). By 2003, Newsom was poised for his own successful mayoral run, and he became the city’s mayor in January of 2004.
Newsom wasted no time proving himself as an iconoclast willing to take a moral stand against entrenched power. Soon after taking office, he instructed city clerks to start providing same-sex couples with marriage licenses. The move put him in violation of state and federal law, and set off a firestorm across the country. Embattled, Newsom held out for months before finally being forced down from the policy. However, it still proved a key moment in the fight for gay rights. Less then a decade later, in 2015, same-sex marriage was legalized across the US.
Three years later, in 2018, Newsom won the governorship, and the state prepared for him to again take on a federal government led by Donald Trump. The hope was that the progressive course he first established as the mayor of San Francisco would make him the perfect foil to Trump. Sandy Valenciano, the long-time immigrant organizer, says there were exciting signs.
She watched as his administration hired dedicated organizers and activists. With an overwhelming Left Coast mandate, Newsom was poised to be a defender of immigrants. And he delivered: He signed a collection of bills protecting immigrants and asylum seekers. Qazi’s mother spoke fondly of what he did for immigrant small business owners. And a month into Newsom’s governorship, Attorney General Becerra completed a monumental investigation of ten immigrant detention facilities in the state, including Mesa Verde.
“We intend to keep visiting these facilities and sharing our findings over the course of the next several years. We are confident that our effort will continue to be a source of information for the public and for policymakers in California as we work to promote fair and humane treatment of everyone in the immigration system,” Becerra told reporters when he released his findings of serious malfeasance, in February of 2019. (Among other allegations, the report alleged that ICE detainees were receiving inadequate medical care and were being subjected to long periods of in-cell confinement without sufficient breaks.)
Valenciano and other activists grew confident they had an ally in Sacramento. He had made good on promises to protect immigrants. During the campaign, Newsom had railed against the private prison industry in the state. In his inaugural address in January of 2018, he spoke clearly: “We will end the outrage that is private prisons in the state of California once and for all.”
His push culminated in October of last year, when he signed AB 32, a monumental bill that promised to end both private prisons and private ICE detention centers in the state. The law promised to, over a long process, put a halt on the expansion of more private ICE facilities.
That’s when things began to fall apart. Private ICE detention centers in the state seem on track to grow, not go away: Before the law took effect this January, ICE scooped up four major contracts to expand its private detention space in the state. Then Geo Group sued California to try to stop the law (the lawsuit is ongoing, and the law remains in place in the meantime). Advocates looked at Newsom to stand firm, and fight private prisons. The arena was set for a showdown — but suddenly, Newsom faltered.
Even as he clashed with Trump on Twitter, advocates say the governor seemed unwilling to really enter the fray and interfere with ICE’s work in California. ICE and private prison companies continued expanding. As immigration activists tried to parse why Newsom was suddenly backing down after being so bold in signing AB 32, everything suddenly changed. Then, in March, the pandemic hit.
Since the earliest days of the pandemic, a huge and growing coalition of politicians, organizations, celebrities, and, of course, people in ICE detention, have pushed Newsom to do something. The three main demands are for the governor to start an investigation of conditions in private detention centers; to stop California state prisons from sending people to ICE detention; and to halt ICE from expanding its private detention network even further in the state. Besides Diane Guerrero and the UFW, Human Rights Watch and the Dolores Huerta Foundation have pushed Newsom to open an investigation.
Current San Francisco officials have also pushed Newsom to do more. Back in March, Boudin, the new DA, didn’t mince words when it came to Newsom shutting down private detention in the state:
“When someone dies in immigration detention, their blood will be on our hands,” Boudin told the SF Chronicle.
Boudin’s fears have, tragically, come to pass. Early in the morning on May 6, Carlos Escobar Mejia was pronounced dead from complications arising from COVID-19. Escobar had lived in California for over 40 years when he was placed in the Otay Mesa ICE detention center in January of this year, after being arrested by Border Patrol while traveling in Southern California. He and his family had emigrated to LA from El Salvador in the ’80s, fleeing that country’s brutal civil war. He was the first ICE detainee to die from COVID-19. (To this day, almost 2,000 detained immigrants have tested positive for the virus, and advocates warn that the real number of infected could be much higher.)
The outbreak inside Otay Mesa, outside of San Diego, was out of control: Over 100 people had tested positive for the virus, and the numbers continued to rise. Now, a man had died. Escobar’s death supercharged the coalition. As more groups joined the movement, activists began unifying into an informal coalition that included scores of different organizations and activists. The group sent letter after letter to Newsom’s office, and flooded his office with calls, hoping to get answers (they also sent letters to AG Becerra, as well as Senators Kamala Harris and Diane Feinstein). After Escobar died, Newsom — as well as Harris and Becerra — made fiery statements condemning ICE, and renewed calls for the Department of Homeland Security (ICE’s parent agency) to investigate his death.
Members of the activist coalition working to pressure Newsom say they finally got the governor’s attention when a letter signed by over 40 detainees in Otay Mesa was picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle on May 14, under the headline “‘Cry for help’: ICE detainees beg lawmakers to act after coronavirus death.” In a statement to the Chronicle, Jesse Melgar, a press secretary for Newsom, shared the governor’s alarm about “abuse and negligence” in the facilities. But he said the responsibility remained on DHS and ICE to investigate and intervene, not Governor Newsom.
Qazi and other advocates on the outside say that telling the Trump administration to investigate themselves amounts to asking Harvey to investigate The Weinstein Company. In a letter to the governor and Becerra in April, the men in Unit C wrote:
“As we continue our hunger strike inside Mesa Verde, it has come to our attention that the California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has sent a letter to DHS asking them to take action on ICE detention in California. We appreciate this effort, but DHS and ICE are well aware of what is happening inside detention centers in California and across the country, and have refused to act.
We would like to remind Mr. Becerra that under California law his office has the right to inspect all immigrant detention facilities in the state, and to oversee the standards of care in these facilities…We also call on Governor Newsom to protect the health of everyone in California, including those of us in immigrant detention. He cannot leave these matters in the hands of private corporations, or a federal agency that does not care about us. We have asked them to take action every day and they have refused. That is why we are organizing and speaking out, just like many others in detention.”
While the California government continued to resist taking their own action, the attention the Otay Mesa detainee’s letter got in the Chronicle spurred Newsom’s office to action.
“The day after the letter ran in the Chronicle, we finally got a reply from the governor’s office,” says Mindy Pressman, an organizer with Otay Mesa Detention Resistance, part of the coalition of organizations working to push the governor to action. She says the governor’s staff wanted to meet with them — but over 10 days later, on May 26. “There was zero urgency from them, even though people were dying,” Pressman says.
As the date of the meeting approached, another immigrant died in California ICE detention — this time in Mesa Verde.
In the Mesa Verde facility, the news of Escobar’s death had hit hard. Qazi remembers feeling afraid, and worrying for the older detainees in his unit. One man, Choung Woong Ahn, had also spent decades in California, after emigrating from Korea to Alameda County in the 1980s. (He entered ICE detention after finishing an 8-year criminal sentence for attempted murder in a California state prison).
At 74-years-old, Ahn was a gentle and well-liked presence in Unit C. But the other men worried about his health, and, soon after Mejia died, Ahn was taken by guards to a hospital on the outside to investigate possible lung cancer. When he was brought back to the facility, the guards told Ahn he would be placed in a medical isolation cell — hardly distinct from solitary confinement. Ahn begged them to let him return to the dorm instead, but he was forced into the single occupancy holding. On May 17, guards found him unresponsive in his cell. He had hanged himself.
“Even if he didn’t die from COVID, COVID caused his death,” Qazi says. “Ahn was a good guy, he was a friend to a lot of us. They need to investigate and find answers about what happened to him.”
In the wake of Escobar and Ahn’s deaths, the numbers of infected continued to rise, with over 2,600 cases nationwide, and almost 200 positive tests in California detention centers. As May wore on, the coalition waited for their meeting with the governor.
Sandy Valenciano says she went into the meeting with the governor’s staff hopeful — after months of sending letter after letter to the governor, she thought they were finally going to see action.
“We were so excited to get a response,” she says. With hopes high, Valenciano and others say they actually went into the meeting expecting the governor’s office to offer a plan to take on ICE detention; Valenicano says she had the feeling of an ally suddenly appearing, just when they desperately needed one.
But those hopes were quickly dashed. Five different advocates who were on the call with the governor’s staff say they walked away feeling like they’d been paid lip service, and offered no solutions.
Out of respect for the governor they were careful not to share too many details from the hour-long call, but they were clear that the governor’s staff didn’t offer them anything. Newsom’s top immigration advisor, Gina Da Silva, told the coalition members that the governor was calling on the federal government to investigate ICE detention in the state. The advocates stressed that they knew ICE was never going to investigate ICE — California had to step in. According to people on the call, Da Silva never denied that California has the authority to investigate private ICE detention centers in the state. But she offered no commitment, or even interest, in doing so.
Lisa Knox, the managing attorney with the Oakland-based Centro Legal de La Raza, left the call particularly dismayed. Centro had represented Ahn’s immigraiton case, and the lawyers on staff had come to know him well.
“It was very frustrating,” Knox says. “We had a client die, and we’re getting calls from our other clients worried they’re next. But we’re just not seeing the same urgency from elected officials.”
Like most of the other people on the call, Knox is a Californian, and she has lived much of her life in San Francisco. She knows Newsom, and has long understood him to be an ally for immigrants. That’s why his current inaction has been so baffling.
“To me, this is an issue that we should be aligned on, and it seems to fit with his stated values,” she says. “Could it be because people in immigraiton detention aren’t voters? For whatever reason, he seems to think this group of Californians’ needs aren’t as urgent as other groups, and that boggles the mind.”
Valenciano, an immigrant herself, has lived in the East Bay for decades, and she has also been shocked by Newsom’s inaction.
“The political will in California is there,” she says. But she worries that Newsom has transformed into a paper tiger since taking the governorship — though he clashes with Trump on social media and in press releases, she says he’s been unwilling to actually battle with the federal government. “I would say that he’s actually creating a cover for private companies to keep doing what they’re doing — because Californians think he’s already addressed this, but he hasn’t.”
Each person interviewed for this article said they genuinely don’t understand why Newsom isn’t using his powers to investigate ICE. They all think the move would play great with California voters, and it aligns with Newsom’s own stated personal stance on both ICE detention and private prisons.
More than one person said they think Newsom might be thinking about voters outside of California, as he eyes an imminent presidential run.
“Does this come down to his future presidential aspirations?” Valenciano asks. “Regardless of his motivation, what he’s telling us in this moment with his inaction is something we will never forget.”
For one man, the need for an investigation goes beyond politics, Newsom’s ambitions, or even California voters. Young Ahn, Choung Woong Ahn’s brother, just wants to know what happened to his brother.
“I’m still looking for answers,” Young says on a phone call from Vancouver. The last he talked to his brother was 5 p.m. on May 16, a few hours before Choung killed himself. He says his brother didn’t mention he was suicidal, even though they talked about how hard isolation had been for him — they even made plans to talk again the next day.
Since Choung died, Young has done everything he can to complete his own investigation. He wants to understand what happened to his brother. He says he’s already found a cascade of red flags. For instance, a doctor in the facility had recorded that Choung was suicidal.
“Why was he placed in isolation, without supervision, if they knew he was suicidal?” Young asks. “Why didn’t they take away the materials that he used to hang himself? He was 74 — how did he manage to hang himself, to lift himself?”
Though the family has ordered an independent autopsy, Young knows that he’s limited in his ability to actually investigate his brother’s death. For the last month, he’s done everything he can to push Newsom and the government of California to open an independent investigation, joining the fight alongside the other activists and organizations. He’s written letters, called the governor’s office, and taken dozens of press calls. Lisa Knox says she’s been amazed with him and his family’s persistence and dedication to the movement, even in their grief.
“They need to investigate,” Young says. “It’s not just for my family — it’s for the people still in there. They are human beings.”
Jack Herrera is an San Francisco-based reporter covering immigration, human rights, and Latino issues. His work has appeared in Politico Magazine, The Nation, The New Republic, and elsewhere.
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