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CHICAGO - Two immigrant women are calling for a civil rights investigation into the life-threatening conditions and lack of COVID-19 protections they are experiencing in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody at an Indiana county jail. 

The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) filed the complaint today with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on behalf of the women, who are detained by ICE in the Clay County Justice Center in Brazil, Indiana. The complaint charges that ICE continues to put their lives, and those of others detained at the jail, at risk by detaining people in the close quarters where social distancing is largely impossible, and withholding information regarding how those in custody can obtain COVID-19 testing. As of May 25, ICE reported that three immigrants at Clay County had COVID-19, of a total of 27 reported cases that have occurred there since February 2020.

The complaint urges the civil rights office to investigate the lack of precautions ICE and Clay County have taken to stem the further spread of COVID-19 within the jail.  In the complaint, the women, who are being publicly identified by only their first names, shared their stories:

  • Michelle is a 28-year-old mother with four young children who have been in foster care since she was detained by ICE in January 2021. In April, Michelle was tested for COVID-19 and placed into quarantine with 16 women on her cell block, but was not given her test results. She described the lack of social distancing, and said guards fail to wear masks. In her declaration, Michelle said, “It is not right that the jail never told me I had COVID. I believe I have a right to know about my own medical condition. It shouldn’t have taken my attorney to request medical records that took over a week to get for me to find out.”
  • Maria is a 31-year-old single mother of two young U.S. citizen sons who have been in foster care since her detention in February 2021. Maria says “The jail should do more to protect the people who do not have COVID from the people who do. The jail does nothing to separate the people who are sick or have tested positive for COVID from the rest of us. They isolate the people in the block from the rest of the jail but leave all of the women in the block exposed to each other. These are not safe conditions, especially for people who have medical conditions.”

“The Biden administration continues to subject people to punitive ICE detention, where deadly conditions and medical neglect are rampant,” said Lisa Chun, NIJC Senior Attorney. “The declarations provided in this complaint should be taken seriously, and provide a wake-up call for the administration to urgently release people to their communities, and dramatically scale down the abusive immigration detention system. There is no good reason for Michelle or Maria to be detained in life-threatening conditions and separated from their children while their immigration cases proceed.”

The civil rights complaint comes as national immigrant rights groups are expressing outrage over the dramatic 50 percent increase in the number of people in ICE detention under the Biden administration. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told members of Congress this week that he was concerned by the overuse of ICE detention, but he did not commit to scaling back the detention system. The administration has failed to protect people languishing in detention during the pandemic and, as ICE detention numbers rise, so do active COVID-19 cases. Today, more than 22,000 people are currently detained by ICE, and 1,495 have COVID-19. At the end of February, only 13,890 were in ICE detention and only 332 people had active COVID-19 cases. 
The Clay County jail, which detains people for ICE under a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service, is one of 200 facilities ICE uses to detain people around the country. As the government works to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine to bring an end to the pandemic, people who remain incarcerated in close physical proximity, including the tens of thousands of individuals detained in ICE custody, remain vulnerable to infection. An Illinois county jail which also contracts with ICE to detain immigrants was recently cited by the DHS Office of Inspector General for conditions similar to what Michelle and Maria have experienced in Clay County. With a persistent pattern of neglect and abuse throughout ICE’s detention system, the Biden administration must take steps to end its reliance on incarceration and pursue more humane and cost-effective community-based alternatives to migration management.