Legal Update on the Fight to #FreeThemAll in the DMV

June 17, 2020

Confining people in a detention center, jail, or prison — where they cannot practice social distancing and are unable to protect themselves from the coronavirus — is cruel, inhumane, and, as we are arguing in court, unconstitutional. The only way to stop people from dying and suffering life-altering complications is by releasing people from detention. We must free them all.

The National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIPNLG) is representing immigrants in the DMV whose lives are at risk if they remain detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in facilities that are fundamentally ill-equipped to handle the virus. We are suing ICE in Maryland and Virginia because ICE cannot protect our clients, all of whom are highly vulnerable to serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19 due to their age or underlying medical conditions.

Our lawsuits came after advocates, doctors, medical experts, elected officials, and even the former ICE Director implored ICE to release people from detention, knowing that the spread of the coronavirus will be uncontrollable in detention. Researchers have now predicted that coronavirus outbreaks can potentially spread to nearly everyone detained and overwhelm local hospitals.

A little over two months ago, there were only four people detained by ICE who had tested positive for the coronavirus. A month ago, the number reached 300. Today, over 1,500 people in ICE detention have had COVID-19.

This is not surprising. All the facilities where we are litigating in the DMV — Howard County Detention Center and Worcester County Detention Center in Maryland, and ICA-Farmville and Caroline Detention Facility in Virginia — have now had confirmed coronavirus cases.

Social distancing and maintaining proper hygiene are impossible in these detention facilities. At ICA-Farmville, for example, as many as 100 people are living in one large space, with groups of four bunk beds placed right next to each other. People are in constant contact with one another, especially when utilizing shared spaces like telephone booths, cafeterias, bathrooms, and showers. Our clients have repeatedly mentioned that detention facilities are not being cleaned properly and that they lack basic sanitary products like soap and hand sanitizer.

ICE, an agency known for its mishandling of outbreaks, is only making matters worse. ICE is routinely transferring people from facilities where there are coronavirus infections into facilities where there are no confirmed cases, including from the New York area into DMV facilities. They are not conducting the widespread testing needed to monitor and protect people.

A little over two months ago, there were only four people detained by ICE who had tested positive for the coronavirus. A month ago, the number reached 300. Today, over 1,500 people in ICE detention have had COVID-19, with the actual number likely being much higher given the lack of testing. And two people have now tragically died from the coronavirus in ICE detention.

We at NIPNLG, along with our partners, are fighting to prevent the death and suffering of more people in ICE detention in the DMV. In Maryland, a federal judge ordered the release of all three of our clients who were detained in the Howard and Worcester County Detention Centers. The judge identified many “notable deficiencies” in ICE’s handling of the coronavirus, including lack of any social distancing measures, lack of any special precautions to protect those with high-risk health conditions, and lack of testing for COVID-19. The judge found that “the detention of [an immigrant] with a high-risk health condition in a facility exposed to the coronavirus likely imposes unconstitutional punishment because “the conditions bear no reasonable relationship to the purpose of the detention” and by continuing to detain people in these circumstances, ICE is disregarding the severe risk that medically vulnerable detained people are facing.

But the fight is not over, and as expected the situation is getting worse. We are starting to see the initial signs of an outbreak in both facilities. Three employees at Howard County Detention Center and ten employees at Worcester County Detention Center have now tested positive for COVID-19. The judge has ordered ICE to produce a list of medically vulnerable people in these facilities, and we are continuing to work on getting everyone released.

In our Virginia lawsuit, the federal district court judge denied our emergency request and disagreed that our clients face imminent risk of harm from COVID-19 while they are detained at Farmville and Caroline detention centers. The judge completely ignored the evidence we provided about the circumstances in the facilities and made several incorrect legal conclusions. We recently appealed the judge’s decision to the federal court of appeals. We will continue to provide updates on the litigation.

Although our lawsuit is brought on behalf of medically vulnerable people only, we hope that our litigation can shed much needed light on the conditions in ICE facilities in the DMV and why they are woefully inadequate for everyone detained there, not just people with a higher risk of illness or death from the coronavirus.

Our lawsuits, and the successes we have had, are part of the bigger organizing and movement to #AbolishICE and #FreeThemAll. We join our allies to call on ICE and local officials to release everyone from detention. No human should be subjected to the conditions that our clients and thousands of others are subjected to in these facilities, especially in the middle of the worst pandemic the world has seen since 1918. Free them all.

Amber Qureshi is an immigrant from Pakistan, a soccer enthusiast, and attorney for the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.