The ACLU went to court Monday to ask a judge to force release of migrants being held by ICE in a detention facility in Tacoma, Washington, amid the coronavirus panic, arguing it’s irresponsible to keep high-risk people in a setting where transmission is more likely.
With nearby Seattle suffering from one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks, the American Civil Liberties Union said older migrants and those with serious conditions should be granted leniency and released.
“These are not normal circumstances, and the heightened risk of serious harm to people in detention from COVID-19 is clear,” said Eunice Cho, a lawyer at the ACLU’s National Prison Project.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment.
ICE said last week that it did not have any positive tests for the virus among its detainee population, but pointed to its extensive experience with dealing with communicable diseases among migrants in custody as evidence it knows how to isolate and provide treatment to infected persons.
Colorado news media reported that 10 people have been isolated at an ICE facility in Colorado for possible infection.
ICE confirmed the isolation, saying they were “cohorted for monitoring out of an abundance of caution” after reporters of possible exposure to COVID-19.
ICE has suspended social visits to all of its detention facilities nationwide to try to prevent infections, and the agency said it’s taking other steps.
“Since the onset of reports of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), ICE epidemiologists have been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) staff for the screening and management of potential exposure among detainees,” a spokeswoman said.
The ACLU and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project said migrants in detention have a constitutional right to be safe, and amid coronavirus there’s no way some high-risk groups can be kept safe while in detention.
“Preventive measures that may be effective in the community, such as maintaining a distance of six feet from other persons and frequent disinfection, are simply not possible in the detention setting,” the groups said in their lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Washington state.
The groups filed the lawsuit on behalf of migrants who, in papers filed with the court, detailed their health conditions that made them high-risk.
One Cuban woman said she suffers from epilepsy, high blood pressure, an ovarian cyst and lifelong respiratory problems.
“I already do not feel well in detention and do not believe I am receiving sufficient medical treatment for my existing conditions. I am scared that the treatment here would not be sufficient if I get COVID-19,” she said in a declaration to the court. “We are enclosed in such close quarters here. If anyone is infected here, it will infect us all. We are all afraid.”
Another Mexican woman who said she has high blood pressure, asthma and depression, said she too is worried about being confined amid the virus spread.
“They do not have the capacity to treat us here, and when they do give us medical treatment, it’s not sufficient or good. Imagine if they had to treat many of us,” she wrote to the court.
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