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In Race to Avert Catastrophe, Advocates Demand Immigrants Be Freed from Notorious Georgia Detention Centers

ICE “walking willingly into a preventable disaster” as two of nation’s largest detention centers reach boiling point

ATLANTA – The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta (AAAJ) today filed a motion for preliminary injunction in their lawsuit seeking the immediate release of medically vulnerable individuals in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA and Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, GA. 

The motion demands the petitioners be freed, emphasizing that ICE cannot or will not comply with CDC guidance and is unable to protect them from the imminent dangers of COVID-19.

“At Stewart, social distancing is impossible, so I am unable to maintain a safe distance from others to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as recommended by the CDC,” said a medically vulnerable 31-year-old petitioner. The man, who came to the U.S. with his family when he was eight years old, has hypertension and is in a wheelchair due to complications from a back surgery in 2019.

“To this day, ICE has not done any individualized medical evaluation for me to determine whether any special measures are needed to treat my back and other conditions or to reduce my risk of exposure to coronavirus given the condition of my heart and lungs,” continued the man. “I am scared they are going to let me die right here.”

“It’s unconscionable to continue to trap people in these detention camps as the virus spreads inside,” said Gracie Willis, a staff attorney with the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project. “As ICE fails to heed the advice of doctors and public health officials for even the most basic protective measures, the agency is already seeing a spike in the number of cases at their detention centers,” continued Willis. “The agency will soon bear responsibility for the large number of people in its care facing unnecessary illness and loss of life. Their window to avoid such devastation is quickly closing.” 

"ICE claims it can protect people in its custody, but countless detained people report not receiving necessary medical care, not being fed, not being provided enough soap, cleaning supplies, or PPE, and being housed with large groups of other people," said Hillary Li, a staff attorney at Advancing Justice-Atlanta. "COVID-19 is at both Stewart and Irwin and will only continue to spread,” continued Li. “Not only is ICE failing to react, but they are also actively putting already medically vulnerable people in grave danger."

The motion was filed amid an alarming spike in COVID-19 cases inside ICE prisons. Of the mere 3 percent of detained persons tested by ICE, nearly 50 percent have tested positive as of April 30. ICE’s totals do not include staff of private prison corporations, like CoreCivic, which has reported over 40 cases among its staff at Stewart alone.

Doctors and public health experts warn that unless ICE promptly empties its prisons, catastrophic outbreaks of COVID-19 in and around detention centers are inevitable. 

“ICE’s response has made abundantly clear that they do not plan to establish special protections for high-risk patients, instead waiting for them to become infected, symptomatic, and in danger,” said Dr. Robert B. Greifinger in a declaration filed in the case. “The lack of special protections will lead to unnecessary illness and death for the people most vulnerable to this disease,” continued Greifinger. “ICE is walking willingly into a preventable disaster by keeping high-risk and vulnerable patients in detention facilities during the rapid spread of COVID19.” 

If not granted release, petitioners ask ICE to immediately perform custody redeterminations and provide them the opportunity to submit medical records relevant to their risk of severe COVID-19 complications. A federal judge in California recently ruled that ICE must make new custody determinations for every detained individual at heightened risk for COVID-19.

The motion further requests a cease in transfers until the facilities are in full compliance with the CDC’s COVID-19 guidance, adequate medical care and adequate PPE. And in response to a dramatic decrease in the amount of food served at Stewart in recent weeks, petitioners seek three appropriately nutritious meals per day at consistent times and regular access to the commissary.

The habeas petition was filed on April 7 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia. The Court denied an earlier motion for temporary restraining order, but petitioners have since filed an amended complaint

The motion for preliminary injunction can be viewed here and the memorandum of law in support of the motion for preliminary injunction can be found here. Other filings and background on the case can be found here. 

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The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Alabama with offices in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. For more information, see www.splcenter.org and follow us on social media: Southern Poverty Law Center on Facebook and @splcenter on Twitter.

The SPLC represents immigrants facing deportation in five different detention centers. Learn more about SPLC's Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Atlanta (Advancing Justice-Atlanta) is the first legal advocacy nonprofit dedicated to the civil rights of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders in Georgia and the Southeast. Our mission is to protect and promote the civil and human rights of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders in Georgia and the Southeast through policy advocacy, legal services, organizing & civic engagement, and impact litigation.