WASHINGTON — The National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIPNLG), the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (CAIR Coalition), the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Maryland sued U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement today on behalf of immigrants detained in the Worcester County Detention Center and the Howard County Detention Center in Maryland. The organizations seek the release of people who are in civil detention and who are at high risk for serious illness or death in the event of COVID-19 infection due to age or underlying medical condition.

COVID-19 is a global pandemic, and public health experts have repeatedly warned that people detained in immigrant detention are at particularly high risk due to conditions that are often overcrowded and unsanitary. Today’s filing includes a declaration from Dr. Ranit Mishori, who speaks to the public health risk for our plaintiffs. The results of this case could set a nationwide precedent for all immigration detention facilities to release individuals who are most at risk due to age and/or underlying conditions.

Sirine Shebaya, executive director of NIPNLG, issued the following statement: 

“ICE’s needless detention of immigrants has always been cruel and excessive, but today, it also recklessly endangers their lives. The government is aware of the risk and yet has refused to release those who are detained, despite the virtual consensus among public health experts — including those working for the Department of Homeland Security — that release is necessary under current circumstances. Keeping high-risk individuals detained under these circumstances is nothing short of a death sentence.” 

Adina Appelbaum, program director of the Immigration Impact Lab at CAIR Coalition, issued the following statement:

“For people who are detained and at high risk for COVID-19, being released is a matter of life or death. Being detained during an epidemic that threatens their lives violates our clients’ basic constitutional right to be free from punitive conditions of confinement. These medically vulnerable individuals need to be released to the shelter and safety of their families in Maryland, right now, before it is too late.”

Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, issued the following statement:

“We are filing suits like this nationwide in an urgent effort to save the lives of immigrants who are most vulnerable to this virus. ICE officials have already started to test positive for COVID-19. Public health officials continue to advise that detention centers — as well as jails, prisons, and other similar facilities — must dramatically reduce their population and density for the safety of detained people, staff who work in these facilities, and the communities they live in. ICE will bear the ultimate responsibility for a humanitarian tragedy if it does not act now.”

This case builds on a case that the ACLU filed last week in Washington state. Today, similar cases were filed in California, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. ICE officers have already tested positive for coronavirus in detention facilities in New Jersey and Texas, and the Worcester County Detention Center in Maryland is currently under quarantine because of COVID-19 exposure. Public health experts warn that it is a matter of when, not if, the virus takes hold in detention centers.

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