The American Civil Liberties Union has asked a federal court to release a group of immigrants at a Seattle-area detention center because of their vulnerability to contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
On Monday, the civil liberties group filed a habeas corpus petition on behalf of nine detainees at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Tacoma, Washington, an area with some of the highest number of coronavirus cases in the United States. All nine have preexisting conditions — such as lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, epilepsy, kidney disease, autoimmune disorders, asthma and hypertension.
The ACLU cites several medical experts in its argument that these detainees should be released because of their age, illnesses and high likelihood of contracting COVID-19 in a “congregate environment” like the detention center. It also notes that ICE detention centers lack the medical resources required to treat patients who develop serious symptoms.
“Immigrant detention centers are institutions that uniquely heighten the danger of disease transmission,” Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said in a statement. “In normal circumstances, ICE has proven time and again that it is unable to protect the health and safety of detained people. These are not normal circumstances, and the heightened risk of serious harm to people in detention from COVID-19 is clear.”
ICE said in a statement that no detainees had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Friday but that at least four had met the government requirements for testing. It added that it would preemptively isolate new detainees or those who become sick.
“Consistent with federal partners, ICE is taking important steps to further safeguard those in our care,” an agency spokesperson said via email. “As a precautionary measure, we are temporarily suspending social visitation in all detention facilities.”
Freedom for Immigrants, an advocacy group that oversees 4,500 volunteers who visit ICE detention centers to monitor detainee conditions, said that many visitors were denied entry starting Friday.
“If ICE is truly serious about ensuring the health and well-being of people in its custody, the agency would release people from immigration detention, beginning with vulnerable populations,” Christina Fialho, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement. “Immigrants in detention are always vulnerable to abuse and medical neglect. During a health pandemic, the likelihood of abuse occurring with no accountability is at an all time high.”
As of March 7, ICE had 37,888 people in detention. Of those in custody, 6,593 had cleared the initial screenings for asylum, meaning they could be paroled on the government’s discretion.
Last week, Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney, chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, and Jamie Raskin, chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, asked Department of Homeland Security agencies to provide their COVID-19 prevention protocol in writing.
The two Democrats wrote in a letter that DHS had a “well-documented history of failing to prevent the spread of disease among vulnerable populations,” citing 900 cases of mumps and various clusters of chicken pox that had arisen in ICE detention centers in 2019. Around 84 percent of the mumps cases occurred because the person was exposed to someone who had the illness in government custody, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Eight people have died in ICE custody so far in fiscal 2020.