Immigrant Advocates Ask Federal Court to Order Immediate Release of Eight People in Immigration Detention

A coalition of immigrant advocates asked the federal court Wednesday to order the immediate release of eight people in immigration detention who are at high risk for severe illness or death from COVID-19. The eight are presently housed in two Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities in Eloy, although sponsors have offered to house and care for them.  The case was brought by the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project (Florence Project), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Arizona, and Perkins Coie LLP.

The filing comes on the same day that ICE revealed that a person detained in La Palma Correctional Center has been diagnosed with COVID-19, the first confirmed case in Arizona of the infection in ICE detention centers. Five of the eight Petitioners named are detained in this facility, as well as hundreds of others who find themselves in a very dangerous situation. Three are detained at Eloy Detention Center, a separate ICE facility.

The eight Petitioners are adults of all ages, from 19 to 54, from different countries, and with diverse experiences that brought them to United States. What they share is acute, imminent risk for complications or even death if they contract COVID-19 due to medical conditions like asthma, heart disease, HIV, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), and they are all incarcerated in civil immigration detention here in Arizona. The crowded ICE facilities make it impossible for detainees to follow the Centers for Disease Control guidelines for avoiding COVID-19, and, as of filing, ICE has not exercised their discretion to release these individuals despite the Florence Project’s formal requests to do so.

One Petitioner is Geidys, a 21-year-old Cuban woman whose father, a government official, threatened to disappear her because of her sexual orientation and political dissidence.  The immigration court previously ruled that Geidys could not be returned to Cuba because she faced the risk of torture, but the government has kept her in detention while trying to find a third country to accept her.

Geidys suffers from asthma and tachycardia with a syncope episode, and ongoing detention puts her at severe risk of COVID-19-related illness or death. Continuing to detain Geidys, in the midst of a pandemic, after she has already won her case is unconscionable.

“Every day that people with serious medical conditions sit in immigration detention is a day that their lives are being unnecessarily put in danger,” said Laura Belous, Florence Project Advocacy Attorney. “Just today, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in a detention center in Arizona was announced. Time is of the essence for each of these people and for everyone in immigration detention.”

Courts throughout the country have ordered release of civil detainees under similar circumstances, but ICE has yet to exercise its discretion to release the petitioners.

“ICE is constitutionally required to ensure the health and safety of people in its custody. Instead, it is needlessly putting people in extreme danger during this public health pandemic,” said Victoria Lopez, advocacy and legal director at the ACLU of Arizona. “People in prisons, jails, and detention facilities across Arizona are not able to take the precautions that public health officials advise, putting them at increased risk of infection. ICE has the discretion to take immediate action to release Geidys and others promptly before further harm comes to them, as well as those who work in these facilities and surrounding communities.”

“This is now the eighth suit the ACLU has filed in states around the country,” said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “Every day comes with more reports of people who have contracted COVID-19 in detention centers around the country. For our clients, being released before an outbreak takes hold is an urgent matter of life or death. Time is running out. The government must act now, and we will keep fighting until they do.”

People in immigration detention are extremely vulnerable to the spread of infectious disease, and COVID-19 is particularly contagious and dangerous. Public health officials all agree that it is impossible to contain COVID-19 inside detention centers and prisons, and the only way to protect high-risk detainees is to release them.

The Florence Project, the ACLU, the ACLU of Arizona, and Perkins Coie are extremely concerned that the government insists on continuing to detain and deport migrants in the midst of this unprecedented public health crisis. As infectious disease specialist and expert witness Dr. Jaimie Meyer said, “Health in detention centers, jails, and prisons is community health. Protecting the health of individuals who are detained in and work in these facilities is vital to protecting the health of the wider community.” By advocating for the immediate release of our most vulnerable clients, this case aims to do just that.

The complaint can be found here.