ACLU Urges Federal Court to Demand ICE Provide COVID-19 Antivirals to People in Detention

December 15, 2023 9:45 pm

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SAN FRANCISCO — The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU Foundation of Northern California, ACLU Foundation of Southern California, and Goodwin on Thursday urged a federal court in California to require Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to make Paxlovid and other COVID-19 antivirals available to people detained at the Golden State Annex detention facility in McFarland, California. In a motion for a preliminary injunction, the ACLU stated that ICE’s denial of timely and adequate access to COVID-19 antivirals violated people’s Fifth Amendment rights, which requires that the government provide adequate medical care to people in its custody.

The motion was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California and comes as California and other states across the country grapple with rising rates of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses ahead of the holidays. The motion also coincides with a separate amicus brief filed on Thursday by the ACLU in support of detained immigrant workers who experienced health and safety violations while employed by the GEO Group, Inc. at the Golden State Annex Facility.

The ACLU initially filed this class-action lawsuit last week on behalf of medically vulnerable patients who were denied access to COVID-19 antivirals and timely medical treatment at Golden State Annex. One of the plaintiffs in the case, Jimenez v. ICE, stated that he complained about COVID-related symptoms three times before being tested, and upon testing positive for the virus was only provided cough drops, nasal strips, and electrolyte drinks.

“ICE’s failure to provide adequate medical care to people at high-risk of COVID-19 is not only unethical, but also dangerous,” said Kyle Virgien, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “ICE facilities have a long history of medical negligence and abuse, and our lawsuit underscores ICE’s systemic failure to protect and uphold the dignity of people who are in detention.”

ICE’s own COVID-19 guidelines acknowledge that treatment with antiviral medication reduces the risk of severe COVID-19, decreases the need for hospitalization, and reduces the severity of the disease thereby improving survival. Yet still, ICE failed to provide timely testing and access to antivirals at Golden State Annex, even in light of high-profile COVID-19 outbreaks at other detention facilities during the same period.

“Golden State Annex holds the majority of immigrants detained in Kern County,” said Eva Bitran, senior staff attorney at the ACLU SoCal. “ICE officials’ failure to provide necessary antiviral medication creates grave health risks for people detained and for Kern residents at large.”

Since March 2020, COVID-19 has posed an unprecedented threat to the people locked in ICE detention facilities across the country, where they are routinely denied access to timely and adequate medical care and forced to live in crowded housing units.

“ICE has an obligation to ensure timely and adequate medical care to people in its custody, no matter where they come from or their immigration status,” said Linnea Cipriano, partner at Goodwin. “For too long, ICE has denied vulnerable people potentially life-saving treatment, and it’s past time they were held accountable.”

The motion for a preliminary injunction is available here.

Related FOIA documents are available here and here.

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