Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has the power to release people from ICE facilities but has frequently refused to do so despite the repeated requests for release on parole that many attorneys have filed on behalf of their clients, some of whom suffer from serious health conditions.
Meanwhile, the total number of individuals currently in ICE custody hovers around 23,000. Thousands of individuals across the country continue to face unsafe conditions including crowded dormitories, inadequate cleaning supplies and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and lackadaisical guards who do not use masks in their interactions with detained individuals. These conditions only exacerbate longstanding barriers to adequate medical and mental health care in detention and make facilities ripe for the rapid spread of the novel virus.
That is why the Immigration Justice Campaign’s pro bono partner, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, filed a habeas petition on behalf of a group of individuals detained in the Joe Corley Detention Facility in Conroe, Texas. Habeas corpus petitions bring an individual before a federal judge, who determines whether or not the person’s imprisonment or detention is lawful.
Since the pandemic took hold in the United States earlier this Spring, ICE has repeatedly failed to follow its own guidelines, and the advice of medical health experts, and release those from detention who have health issues that put them at greater risk of suffering complications related to COVID-19. Countless reports have surfaced of detained people being transferred between ICE facilities — causing outbreaks in new facilities, of inadequate access to medical care, and of detained individuals being forced to clean medical wards and common areas without sufficient protective gear.
As a result, pro bono attorneys like those with Gibson Dunn are joining the fight by marching into federal court to force the government’s hand.
The Joe Corley facility in particular has made headlines for the disastrous conditions within its walls. Roger, an Immigration Justice Campaign client detained there, and a plaintiff in the habeas actions, described what he has experienced vividly in a piece for the Houston Chronicle:
“Detainees with respiratory symptoms are forced to go without medical assistance, and there are over 30 people in most dorms, making social distancing virtually impossible. We do not have access to personal protective equipment like masks or gloves. When the doctor walks by people bang on the door to try to get medical attention. I have seen people carried out in critical condition. Meanwhile, individuals from the border and other detention centers are being transferred to the facility.”
Roger, who has a degree in hygiene and epidemiology, expressed fear that conditions within the facility are deadly.
It is our utmost hope that the court recognizes the severity of this situation, and grants freedom to those confined in unsafe conditions amid this global pandemic. Detention should not be a death sentence, but for some people, it has already proved to be just that. If COVID-19 continues to spread through detention facilities, it will pose enormous threats to guards, attorneys, and the general public, and local hospitals will become overwhelmed.
The commonsense solution to halt the spread of COVID-19 is clear—ICE must implement longstanding, effective, and humane alternatives to detention. Until then, we will continue to advocate, and litigate, for the safety of those in ICE custody.
There are two ways that you can support individuals seeking protection today. First, you can send an email to your member of Congress asking them to urge ICE to release individuals from Houston-area detention centers amid the COVID-19 crisis. Then, you can speak out against the Trump administration’s recent proposed regulation that would gut the U.S. asylum system. The government is accepting comments from the public until July 15. We provided starter comment language that you can edit and make your own. We strongly encourage you to personalize your comment if you are able, as the government gives more weight to each comment if it is unique from others. Submit a comment today!