Suit seeks release of immigrant families due to virus risk
Detention centers housing families in Texas and Pennsylvania can’t provide adequate social distancing, lawyers say.
A map using English, Spanish and photos is seen at the ICE South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. | Eric Gay, File/AP Photo
By JOSH GERSTEIN
03/22/2020 03:33 PM EDT
A new lawsuit argues that immigrant families being held under the Trump administration’s family detention policy should be released immediately because they are at grave risk of contracting the coronavirus due to conditions in those facilities.
Lawyers filed suit in federal court in Washington on Saturday on behalf of more than three dozen families held at a trio of detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania.
Advocates say the communal housing arrangements, limited cleaning supplies and the regular influx of new families make the centers a potential hotbed for Covid-19 infection and defy guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control discouraging any gathering of more than 10 people.
“Detained mothers, fathers and children are forced to live and sleep in close quarters and required to congregate and as a result, cannot achieve the ‘social distancing’ needed to effectively prevent the spread of COVID-19,” according to the suit, filed by immigration lawyers in New York, Pennsylvania and Texas. “Even in their beds they cannot even sleep or receive the required distance necessary to protect themselves.”
The suit says cleaning in the so-called Family Residential Centers is inconsistent because it is typically done by detainees who are paid $1 a day for that work. Hand sanitizer and masks are not typically available to the immigrants, and gloves are provided only for certain purposes, the complaint alleges.
“It is almost certain to expect COVID-19 to infect and spread rapidly in family residential centers, especially when people cannot engage in proper hygiene or isolate themselves from infected or asymptomatic residents or staff,” the suit contends.
Attorneys for the detained families alleged that the current conditions violate the Constitution, as well as a 1997 consent decree known as the Flores agreement, which requires a safe environment for minors in immigration custody.
Lawyers asked the court on Saturday for an emergency hearing and temporary restraining order requiring release of their clients.
Almost 2,000 detainees are part of families held at the centers in Berks County, Pa., Dilley, Texas, and Karnes City, Texas. While lawyers have called for release of all the detainees, the suit does not seek class-action status, so it is limited for now to the 37 families listed.
Spokespeople for the Justice Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which oversees the centers, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the suit.
The suit says there are indications that officials “have begun to release some families — those that include pregnant women or people who suffer from asthma — at the Karnes and Dilley FRCs.”
The Trump administration adopted the family detention policy in 2018 after the administration’s earlier family-separation policy triggered widespread outrage. Immigration officials have since made even more dramatic changes, ordering most asylum seekers along the southern border to return to Mexico to wait for hearings in immigration courts on their claims.
Some details in the new suit underscore the difficult position immigration enforcement officials are in as the virus outbreak intensifies.
One complaint made on behalf of the families is that visitors, including lawyers, are often entering the centers without having their temperatures checked and without being told to wash their hands or provided with hand sanitizer.
However, immigration lawyers also objected on Sunday after ICE said attorneys wishing to consult immigration detainees in person would now be required to “wear disposable vinyl gloves, N-95 or surgical masks, and eye protection.” Beginning Monday, attorneys need to “provide” those items themselves, new ICE guidelines say, despite the fact they are in short supply.
“.@ICEgov requiring attorneys to supply their own personal protective equipment to serve detained clients, when medical providers say THEY don’t have enough, is appalling and #unconstitutional,” immigration lawyer Allen Orr Jr. wrote on Twitter.
.@ICEgov requiring attorneys to supply their own personal protective equipment to serve detained clients, when medical providers say THEY don’t have enough, is appalling and #unconstitutional. https://www.ice.gov/covid19 #COVID19
The suit over detained families was filed by three legal groups that provide assistance to those immigrants: ALDEA — the People’s Justice Center in Reading, Pa., the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services in San Antonio, Texas, and the Rapid Defense Network in New York.
The case was not immediately assigned to a judge, a step that would typically happen on Monday for cases filed over the weekend. The request for an emergency hearing and restraining order is likely to be directed to the emergency duty judge for U.S. District Court in Washington this weekend: Ketanji Brown Jackson, an appointee of President Barack Obama.
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