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Lawsuit demands ICE release immigrants at risk for coronavirus

Citing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., advocacy groups asked a federal court on Monday to order the Trump administration to release a group of sick and elderly immigrants from a detention center in the Seattle area, an epicenter of America’s current health crisis.

In their lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Seattle, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project demanded the immediate release of nine immigrants currently detained at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Tacoma, Washington. Citing guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the advocates said the detainees are especially susceptible to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, because of their underlying medical conditions and age. 

If they contract the virus, the suit said, the immigrants are at “high risk for severe illness or death.”

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“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” Eunice Cho, an ACLU attorney who specializes in detention matters, told CBS News. “Immigration detention centers are closed environments, just like the cruise ships, just like the nursing homes that were the site of some of the deadliest exposures to COVID-19.”

The nine detained immigrants named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit suffer from chronic health conditions, ranging from heart, liver and kidney diseases, to epilepsy and a spinal cord injury. They include a Jamaican woman with an autoimmune liver disease, a Salvadoran man confined to a wheelchair who requires a colonoscopy bag and catheter, a 65-year-old Mexican woman who suffers from heart disease and hypertension and a Mexican man who survived a heart attack. 

A detainee worker at an ICE detention center in Tacoma, Washington, on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. Ted S. Warren / AP

According to the CDC, older adults and those with underlying medical conditions like heart, lung and liver diseases and diabetes are at “increased risk” of “severe illness” if infected by the coronavirus, which has killed more than 6,700 people around the globe, including 71 in the U.S.

The advocacy groups also underscored the Tacoma detention center’s location in the Seattle metropolitan area, one of the epicenters of the coronavirus outbreak. Thirty-seven people have died in neighboring King County, and 25 of those deaths have been linked to a nursing home in the city of Kirkland.

Cho, the ACLU attorney, said conditions in immigrant detention centers are even more conducive to the spread of viruses. “The only known way to prevent transmission of COVID-19, to protect the people who are most vulnerable in our society, is to employ social distancing and hygiene practices. Those two strategies are virtually unavailable to our plaintiffs,” she said.

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The lawsuit on Monday comes after ICE faces growing calls to downsize its detainee population to mitigate the risk of the virus spreading inside detention facilities, which were holding more than 38,000 immigrants as of last week. Democratic lawmakers, advocacy groups and attorneys have urged ICE to release immigrants with chronic health conditions, pregnant women, elderly detainees and those seeking humanitarian protections and who don’t pose a threat to public safety.

Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, said Monday’s lawsuit could pave the way for ICE to release some of these detainees. 

“If we can go in and get an order clarifying that the federal government indeed has the responsibility to secure the safety of those who are at high risk — and that the only meaningful way to secure their safety is to release them — then we would expect that they would comply with that, not just with these nine individuals, but all of the others who are detained there,” Adams told CBS News. 

ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday’s lawsuit. 

In response to the pandemic, ICE said it has implemented plans to screen new detainees and isolate those with symptoms related to COVID-19. The agency has also temporarily suspended visits by family members and friends at detention centers. As of Friday, ICE said there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases among its tens of thousands of detainees. A staffer at an ICE detention facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, however, is currently being tested for the virus after indicating she was “not feeling well.”

Adams said the measures ICE has takes are “insufficient” and will be ineffective unless the agency takes more drastic steps to downsize its detainee population.

“What you have is exactly what the CDC is warning you shouldn’t have: you have hundreds of people who are being held together in close quarters, who are in constant contact with guards, with staff workers and new individuals who are being detained,” he added. “You have the perfect feeding ground for this virus.”

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