Judge Orders ICE to Immediately Release At-Risk Detainees at Facilities with COVID-19 Cases

A federal judge ordered the immediate release of 10 detainees, held by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and considered vulnerable to the coronavirus, who are waylaid at three correctional facilities in New Jersey where there have been confirmed cases of COVID-19.

U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres in the Southern District of New York granted a temporary restraining order against detainees in ICE custody, agreeing with immigration advocates that it was not safe for them to remain in the correctional facilities.

While ICE had taken some steps to address the COVID-19 outbreak, Torres agreed with immigration advocates that the agency had "exhibited and [continues] to exhibit, deliberate indifference to [detainees'] medical needs," in her ruling.

"The spread of COVID-19 is measured in a matter of a single day — not weeks, months, or years — and Respondents appear to ignore this condition of confinement that will likely cause imminent, life-threatening illness," she wrote.

"Each of the jails where a Petitioner is being housed has reported confirmed cases of COVID-19. This includes two detainees and one correctional officer in the Hudson County Jail, one detainee at the Bergen County Jail, and a 'superior officer' at the Essex County Jail," Torres said.

With the ten detainees suffering from "chronic medical conditions," and past medical histories that make them vulnerable to coronavirus, Torres said that each petitioner faced "an imminent risk of death or serious injury in immigration detention if exposed to COVID-19."

The 10 detainees ICE was ordered to release are between the ages of 31 and 56 and have underlying medical conditions or medical histories rendering them more vulnerable to the coronavirus, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and a history of pneumonia.

Five of the 10 detainees were being held at the Bergen County Jail, where, ICE had announced earlier this week, a 31-year-old Mexican national had tested positive for COVID-19. Three others were being held at Hudson County Jail and two others had been detained at the Essex County Jail.

In a statement published on Twitter shortly after the ruling, Brooklyn Defender Services, the organization that represented the 10 detainees, said that while the decision was a "huge victory," they would not "stop until we #FreeThemAll.

Accusing ICE of being "deliberately indifferent to the basic needs of people in immigration detention," Brooklyn Defender Services and other immigration advocates have argued that the agency is not fit to ensure the protection and care of those who are vulnerable to COVID-19.

ICE detention
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. ICE has been ordered to release 10 detainees considered vulnerable to coronavirus at facilities where detainees or workers have tested positive for COVID-19. John Moore/Getty

The organization praised the federal court for being the first in the "nation to find ICE is showing deliberate indifference to the safety of detained people [and] putting them at high risk if they contract COVID-19, so much that detention is likely unconstitutional [and] they must be immediately released."

In her ruling, Torres also made sure to block Thomas Decker, the director of ICE's New York Field Office, and Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, from arresting the 10 detainees again while their removal hearings are pending.

She gave Decker and Wolf until April 2 to respond to why the temporary order should not become a preliminary injunction, with the temporary measure set to expire on April 9.

It is unclear what might happen with ICE detainees at other facilities where employees and personnel working in ICE detention facilities have tested positive. In addition to the facilities named in the temporary restraining order, there have been at least three other cases of ICE personnel testing positive for COVID-19.

There are 3 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among ICE employees and personnel working in ICE detention facilities: one case at the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility, also in New Jersey, another at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility in Aurora, Colorado, and a third at the Houston Contract Detention Facility in Houston, Texas.

Newsweek has contacted ICE for comment.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.
Judge Orders ICE to Immediately Release At-Risk Detainees at Facilities with COVID-19 Cases | U.S.