Update: The District Court for the Southern District of Illinois has ordered the release of Mr. Chavez Garcia on April 26, 2020. The District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin has granted the habeas petition for Mr. Morales Torres on May 5, 2020; he later received an immigration bond and was released.
CHICAGO (April 22, 2020) - Immigrants represented by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and pro bono counsel filed six new lawsuits in the past week on behalf of immigrants detained in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at jails in Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, and California. The individuals all face high risks if they are infected with COVID-19, and say that ICE and the detention centers have failed to provide appropriate health and sanitation precautions.
One of the individuals represented in the lawsuits is Francisco Morales Torres, a 26-year-old man from Mexico who has lived in the United States since he was 13 years old. An immigration judge has twice ruled in favor of granting Mr. Morales Torres immigration protection, but he has been detained by ICE for more than 18 months while the government has appealed those rulings. Mr. Morales Torres suffers from mental illness including severe depression and anxiety that has been exacerbated by the stress he and other immigrants are experiencing due to being incarcerated at Dodge County Detention Center in Wisconsin, where they have been unable to protect themselves during the pandemic. Mr. Morales Torres is represented by attorneys at NIJC, who filed his petition on April 17 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.
Another lawsuit was filed on behalf of Alfredo Chavez Garcia, a 49-year-old widowed father of six who has lived in the United States for nearly 40 years and has diabetes and high blood pressure. He has been detained at Pulaski County Jail in Illinois for nearly a year, awaiting adjudication of his immigration case, which has been delayed because COVID-19 has slowed the processing of most immigration applications in the United States to a near halt. Meanwhile, Mr. Chavez faces grave risk for complications if he becomes infected with COVID-19. ICE has confirmed that seven immigrants and six employees at the jail have tested positive for the virus. Mr. Garcia is represented by William Bruce and Eric Mattson from Sidley Austin LLP and by NIJC, who filed his petition on April 15 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois.
“More than 250 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in ICE detention centers across the country, and we know from how this disease has spread in our own communities that number likely is much larger,” said NIJC Director of Litigation Keren Zwick. “ICE violates the Constitution when it engages in prolonged immigration detention without a proper hearing on whether that detention should continue, and it is unconscionable under the current circumstances for the U.S. government to continue to detain people who are at high risk of severe illness and death if they contract this disease.”
Two of the habeas petitions have been preliminarily denied by district courts in Illinois. One was on behalf of a a 27-year-old French national who has lived in the United States since 2008 and is detained at the McHenry County Jail, where he has not had consistent access to an inhaler to treat his asthma, and also suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and vision and hearing impairment originating from a past workplace accident. The other petition was on behalf of a 31-year-old transgender man who first came to the United States more than 10 years ago to seek asylum; he has been suffering from respiratory and other symptoms while at Pulaski County Detention Center, where he has been held in solitary confinement.
Despite being held in different detention centers, the petitioners describe facing similar dangerous conditions. At all of these detention centers, immigrants say they are not being provided adequate soap or cleaning supplies to protect themselves from the virus. At the jails in McHenry and Dodge counties, immigrants described interactions with jail staff who did not wear face masks or other personal protective gear. At Pulaski County Jail, staff began wearing masks only after immigrants and staff were diagnosed with COVID-19.
All of the petitioners have family members and communities available to welcome them into homes where they can safely practice the public health guidelines that the Centers for Disease Control and medical experts say are critical in the global battle to reduce the spread of the virus.
To date, NIJC has filed nine lawsuits on behalf of immigrants urging their release since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and has engaged in advocacy with ICE on behalf of dozens more. NIJC continues to call on ICE to suspend civil immigration enforcement and release all immigrants in its custody, in order to protect immigrant lives and the public health of all of our communities. Three earlier lawsuits, for immigrants who were detained at the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee, Illinois, resulted in the rapid release of those individuals.