Appeals Court Blocks Judge From Forcing ICE to Release California Detainees Over Coronavirus Outbreak

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has reportedly blocked an order from a lower court demanding that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency reduce the number of detainees held at a detention facility in Adelanto, California, to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The decision, which was delivered by a panel of three judges on Tuesday according to The Los Angeles Times, will come as a major blow to detainees at the facility, who launched a hunger strike last week in response to ICE's efforts to overturn the decision.

A number of detainees considered vulnerable to coronavirus due to pre-existing medical conditions had described their fears of contracting the virus in audio shared with Newsweek.

The detainees complained of how many of the guards at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center did not wear personal protective equipment, while access to cleaning supplies and sanitation was not always consistent. They also complained of not being able to practice safe social distancing due to cramped conditions at the facility.

Despite their fears, however, 9th Circuit judges Jacqueline Nguyen, Barry Silverman and Daniel Collins ruled in favor of an emergency request from the Trump administration seeking to block the April 23 preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter, while it works to appeal his order.

The preliminary injunction had sought to prevent ICE from continuing to force detainees in what Hatter deemed to be unsafe conditions amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Hatter had ordered ICE to release at least 100 detainees at the Adelanto facility by April 27, with another 150 detainees ordered to be released by April 30.

However, lawyers for the Trump administration had appealed the decision, preventing the release of any detainees before Tuesday's decision.

Speaking with Newsweek on Monday, Karlyn Kurichety, a supervisory attorney at legal group Al Otro Lado, which represents some of the detainees at Adelanto, said a number of detainees at the facility had begun hunger strikes to demand their release and call on ICE to take further action to protect them amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Many detainees, she said, are anxious over the fact that "the guards come in from the facility and do not consistently use PPE [personal protective equipment]." Guards, she said, "are going outside, they're going home, living their lives and then coming back in and detainees are really concerned about this."

Further, she said, detainees are also worried about not having adequate cleaning supplies, despite being expected to clean their living quarters.

A guard escorts an immigrant detainee from his 'segregation cell' back into the general population at the Adelanto Detention Facility on November 15, 2013 in Adelanto, California. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has blocked a U.S. District judge's ruling demanding the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency reduce the population at the Adelanto facility. John Moore/Getty

"Some are using shampoo to clean their dormitory because they don't have cleaning products," Kurichety said.

ICE has refuted the claim that multiple detainees at Adelanto have been participating in hunger strikes.

"There is currently one detainee on a hunger strike at Adelanto," ICE spokesperson Alexx Pons told Newsweek on Tuesday. "Any claim to the contrary is simply not true."

ICE only considers a detainee to be on a formal hunger strike if they have been observed to not have eaten for 72 hours.

Asked whether that is why only one detainee is considered to be participating in the hunger strike, Pons said: "With regard to 'hunger strikes,' a detainee must be observed to have not eaten for a 72-hour window, and referred to the [clinical medical authority] for evaluation and management to classify it as such."

Audio from detainees, however, suggests there is more than one person participating in the hunger strike, while Kurichety maintains that multiple detainees held in both the east and west sides of the Adelanto facility have taken part.

Newsweek has contacted ICE and Al Otro Lado for comment.