Detainees Among Most Vulnerable to COVID-19: Civil Rights Groups File Lawsuits Demanding Release of Immigrants at Risk

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Social distancing and self-isolation may have become the accepted norm around the world. Still, the COVID-19 pandemic is igniting continual discussion regarding who should be forcibly detained, and whether a person’s immigration or criminal status should rightly put them at risk for severe illness or death.

Immigrants may be detained for one of two reasons: to wait for a court hearing that will determine whether or not they will be allowed to stay in the U.S., or to prepare for deportation if it has been determined that they must leave the country. Since immigration is a civil, not criminal, issue, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is only legally allowed if the detainee is a danger to the community or if there is reason to believe that the person will flee and fail to appear for required court hearings. However, many detainees are being held on relatively minor offenses or have yet to stand trial and haven’t been convicted of a crime.

American civil rights groups have filed numerous lawsuits demanding the release of hundreds of immigrants detained at ICE facilities across the nation. The intent of these cases is to force the release of detainees health experts and social activists say are nearly certain to be exposed to the coronavirus should they remain in custody:

  • On March 16, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Northwest Immigrants’ Rights Project filed a lawsuit demanding the immediate release of nine sick and elderly immigrants being detained at an ICE facility in Tacoma, Washington, what many considered at the time to be the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus. The detainees were said to be suffering from chronic health conditions ranging from heart, liver, and kidney diseases, epilepsy and spinal cord injuries that make them prone to suffer more from the virus.
  • On March 24, several immigrant advocacy groups sued U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on behalf of immigrants held at two Maryland detention centers. The organizations seek the release of immigrants in civil detention who are at high risk for contracting the COVID-19 infection and urges detention centers to dramatically reduce their populations and densities for the safety of detained people, the staff and the communities where they are located.
  • In an emergency motion filed on March 31, the Southern Poverty Law Center and American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana demanded the release of asylum seekers from immigration jails in five southern states – Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee – if they do not pose a threat to public safety or a flight risk. The original lawsuit, filed on May 30, 2019, and now under appeal, requested the release of such individuals under the provisions of the Department of Homeland Security’s Parole Directive.
  • On April 15, multiple civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit directing the release of immigrants being held at three South Texas detention centers. According to the complaint, preventative measures at these facilities have been lax. Detainees are allegedly being housed in crowded dorms, receive little or no medical care for their existing conditions and are required to be near guards not wearing face masks or gloves.
  • On April 21, a class-action lawsuit was brought in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of California. The suit demands a dramatic reduction in the number of detainees being held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego and calls for the immediate release of all people over age 45 and those with underlying medical conditions that put them at higher risk for COVID-19. At the time, Otay Mesa had received the dubious distinction of being home to the largest coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. immigration detention system. The facility also housed the first and only known immigrant to have died of the virus while in detention.

Detained immigrants have been largely left out of America’s coronavirus response. However, the latest $3 trillion relief bill (the Heroes Act) would require immigration officials to provide those detained with free and unlimited soap, phone and video calls; require the release of low-risk detainees where possible; and explore low-cost alternatives to detention. Although the bill faces opposition from both parties, the hope is that even if it fails to pass, it could inject concern for the plight of immigrants into future coronavirus relief negotiations.

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