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SPLC and allies seek federal court injunction in system-wide suit to protect people detained by ICE from contracting COVID-19

The SPLC and its allies asked a federal court today to issue a preliminary injunction requiring that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) take immediate steps to protect people in its custody, particularly those who have medical conditions making them more susceptible to serious illness and death from COVID-19.

The emergency motion argues that if ICE cannot or will not take the steps immediately necessary to ensure high-risk individuals are protected from the virus – including timely access to qualified and necessary healthcare – ICE must release them for the safety of the detainees, detention facility staff and the public in general.    

“Literally thousands of medical professionals have expressed concern over deep inadequacies in ICE’s COVID-19 protocols, which will have deadly consequences for detained individuals who cannot practice social distancing, do not have reliable access to soap and sanitizer, and already struggle to obtain minimally adequate health care in ICE’s endemically deficient system,” said Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director at the SPLC. “By law, these individuals need not be detained. It is immoral, unethical and unconstitutional for ICE to continue to detain people for whom it cannot or will not provide adequate care when there are multiple effective alternatives to detention.”

The motion was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California as part of an existing class action lawsuit – Fraihat v. ICEfiled on August 19, 2019, on behalf of the tens of thousands of people in ICE custody.

Attorneys serving clients at ICE detention centers around the country report that current conditions fail to meet the standards that public health officials have recommended to address the pandemic. The suit claims the agency has systematically failed to provide adequate medical and mental health care, as well as disability accommodations, to immigrants held in 158 detention centers scattered throughout the country.

The new motion alleges that ICE has yet to provide the most basic of public health protections – such as soap, hand sanitizer, masks and gloves – inside its detention centers. Moreover, ICE has failed to increase medical staffing, has yet to reduce crowding to implement social distancing and has yet to identify individuals who face a high risk of contracting the virus. ICE has further failed to take necessary steps to reduce immigrants’ exposure to contagion, illness, increased medical complications or death.

“Several weeks ago, I asked an ICE official what the plan was for me because I am older and at risk for a bad COVID-19 infection,” said one plaintiff detained at Adelanto ICE Processing Center in Adelanto, California. “He laughed at me and told me I did not qualify for anything. Despite my various vulnerabilities to COVID-19, no member of the medical staff has evaluated me to determine whether any additional precautionary measures are necessary to protect me from the illness. I have not seen them evaluate anyone else who is at risk either. I am scared for my life.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs further note that detention centers have yet to provide literature or any information regarding COVID-19 to detained individuals, leaving many in the dark about initial symptoms, what to do should symptoms persist and how to protect themselves from infection.

Should the preliminary injunction be granted, ICE would be required to immediately assess individuals with medical conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19 and would be required to provide soap, hand sanitizer and other medical necessities to those in its custody. The preliminary injunction would also put in place protocols to transport people to the hospital for testing and allow those with COVID-19 symptoms to be treated.  

The Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center and Disability Rights Advocates serve as co-counsel with the SPLC, along with pro bono counsel from Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP and Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP.

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