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Advocates Win Federal Court Appointment of Special Master to Oversee ICE Custody Releases

Citing a “history of noncompliance,” a federal judge orders a special master to monitor and oversee custody reviews and releases for people at heightened risk of COVID-19

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – A federal court last night granted civil rights organizations’ motion to appoint a special master, or independent third party, that will ensure the federal government’s compliance with an injunction in the groups’ class-action lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The decision paves the way for systemized custody reviews and releases of people at higher risk of COVID-19 infection and serious illness. The order follows months of noncompliance by the government and its continued detention of thousands of medically vulnerable people in ICE detention facilities where COVID-19 continues to spread. 

U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal issued the decision nearly a year after issuing an injunction ordering ICE to conduct custody reviews and releases for all high risk individuals. The Court previously granted the Plaintiffs’ motion to enforce the injunction, finding the agency’s custody determinations to be a “disorganized patchwork of non-responses or perfunctory denials.”

“The Court is particularly concerned about apparent systematic failures to identify Subclass members, delays and inconsistencies in custody redeterminations, and inadequate monitoring of compliance with relevant policies,” wrote Judge Bernal in his order last night. 

"The government's recklessness has real life and death consequences," said Veronica Salama, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “It's way overdue that ICE be held accountable for its failure to treat immigrants with human dignity. We look forward to the appointment of the special master to finally implement individualized custody reviews and releases systemwide."

Pilar Gonzalez Morales, Senior Attorney at Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC), said, “Once again Plaintiffs were forced to turn to the Court due to ICE's disregard of previous court rulings in this case. We are extremely pleased that the Court has agreed to appoint a third party to ensure ICE identifies and releases from its custody those most vulnerable to COVID-19. We believe this decision could save the lives and health of many more people.”

“Defendants have repeatedly shown their inability or unwillingness to ensure the safety and health of those in their custody,” said Melissa Riess, Staff Attorney at Disability Rights Advocates (DRA). “We are particularly pleased that the court has recognized how important a special master will be to enforce the rights of ‘the most vulnerable,’ especially those without legal representation.”

The Fraihat v. ICE lawsuit seeks an end to the inhumane and traumatic experience of ICE detention affecting tens of thousands across the country. The case was filed by the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC), Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, and Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP in August of 2019. 


The Southern Poverty Law Center is a catalyst for racial justice in the South and beyond, working in partnership with communities to dismantle white supremacy, strengthen intersectional movements, and advance the human rights of all people. For more information, visit 

Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC) is a nonprofit membership organization whose goal is to ensure that everyone can fully and independently participate in our nation’s civic life without discrimination based on race, gender, disability, religion, national origin, age, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), founded in 1993, is the leading national nonprofit disability rights legal center. Its mission is to advance equal rights and opportunity for people with all types of disabilities nationwide. DRA represents people with the full spectrum of disabilities in complex, system-changing, class action cases. Thanks to DRA’s precedent-setting work, people with disabilities across the country have dramatically improved access to health care, employment, transportation, education, disaster preparedness planning, voting, housing, and juvenile justice.

Orrick has 27 offices worldwide, and focuses on serving the Technology, Energy & Infrastructure and Finance sectors globally. Clients worldwide call on Orrick’s teams for forward-looking commercial advice on transactions, litigation and compliance matters.

Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP is an international law firm of approximately 750 attorneys with offices in New York, Washington, Houston, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Chicago, Paris, London, Frankfurt, Brussels, Milan and Rome. The Firm is headquartered in New York City at 787 Seventh Avenue. Tel: 212.728.8000.