ACLU Sues ICE and DHS to Uncover Information About COVID-19 Response

November 6, 2020 11:45 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of the District of Columbia, and Williams & Connolly LLP sued the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement today to obtain documents that have been requested under the Freedom of Information Act. The documents, which have been withheld by the government, relate to ICE’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic under the Trump administration.

For the better part of this year, public health experts have been sounding the alarm that immigrant detention centers would be hotspots for the spread of COVID-19. Fiscal Year 2020, which ended September 30, was the deadliest year for ICE detention in 15 years. This year has also seen numerous reports about the lack of even basic COVID precautions taken by ICE, as well as evidence that ICE has attempted to silence detainees who tried to speak out for better care.

“In a year with so many disasters in the headlines, the escalating humanitarian crisis at ICE detention centers has not received the kind of alarm it deserves,” said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “The abuse, neglect, and degradation our clients regularly face in ICE custody have only worsened since the pandemic began: This year alone, we’ve seen allegations of sexual abuse, increased use of force, rampant use of solitary confinement, attempts by ICE to minimize its role in the deaths of detained people, and hunger strikes to protest the horrendous conditions. The decisions and policies that ICE uses to guide it during this pandemic are a matter of life or death for tens of thousands of detained people and the staff who work at these facilities. It is simply unacceptable that this agency thinks it can act with so little transparency and accountability.”

ICE currently reports 490 active cases of COVID-19 in people it’s detained, though the real number is likely much higher due to limited testing. At the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in California, for example, nearly 20 percent of the detained people have tested positive for the coronavirus. Conditions were so poor that 118 women shared three showers, and people reported waiting days to access soap. Yet, after Geo Group, the private contractor operating the Adelanto facility, sought to offer tests to every detained person and staff member in the facility in May, the ICE officer in charge “ordered the GEO Group to not conduct the universal testing of detainees.”

“We know, from discovery in more than 50 suits the ACLU has filed against ICE around the country, that the agency has fundamentally refused the basic precautions to keep people safe from COVID,” said Arthur Spitzer, senior counsel at the ACLU-DC. “ICE claims it is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the medical needs of detained people, and yet they’re still getting sick, and some are dying. The American people deserve to know what horrors people are being subjected to on our soil.”

The records requested include communications and documents related to the following:

  • The transfer or deportation of detained people who have tested positive for COVID-19 or exhibited symptoms.
  • Any documentation from the start of the Trump administration and onward related to planning for a possible infectious disease outbreak.
  • Models or predictions related to infection and mortality rates of detained people, ICE employees and contractors, and employees of third-party contractors.
  • Any suspected or confirmed exposures, infections, and deaths of people living or working in immigration detention facilities.
  • The risk of spreading COVID-19 to surrounding communities via staff, third-party contractors, visitors, detained people, and transfers.
  • Access to hygiene products and personal protective equipment, and the possibility of social distancing.
  • The testing of detained people, ICE employees and contractors, and employees of third-party contractors at ICE facilities, and testing, treatment, and care of detained people.
  • Directives, policies, protocols, and trainings related to COVID-19 in immigrant detention.
  • Congressional or state-based inquiries into coronavirus-related issues.

The complaint is online, here.

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