Update (April 13, 2020): The U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois has ordered the release of all three NIJC clients named in these lawsuits.
KANKAKEE, IL (April 9, 2020) - The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and Sidley Austin LLP filed lawsuits this week in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois against the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee, Illinois, on behalf of three people detained at the jail in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The individuals seek release from detention because they face severe risk themselves or are caretakers for individuals at high risk as the COVID-19 virus spreads through Illinois. Within 24 hours of one filing, the federal court ordered the first of the group to be released.
The individuals represented in the lawsuits are:
- Juan Manuel Hernandez, a 46-year-old heart attack survivor who suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, as well as breathing problems resulting from smoke inhalation during a house fire. He has lived in Illinois for more than 30 years and has been detained by ICE for more than eight months because he is unable to afford a $2,000 bond set by an immigration judge. Mr. Hernandez’s wife, who has significant medical needs, has lived in a nursing care facility during his detention, where she also is at heightened risk for COVID-19 infection. If Mr. Hernandez were released, he could help take care of his wife. After filing a petition on Mr. Hernandez’s behalf on Wednesday, April 8, the court immediately scheduled an emergency hearing for him the next day. At the hearing, the court ordered the detention center to release Mr. Hernandez.
- Delome Johannes Favi, a 32-year-old father of three young children who suffers from respiratory and sinus problems and high blood pressure. Mr. Favi’s U.S. citizen wife submitted a petition last year for him to obtain lawful permanent residence. The couple’s interview with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services regarding the application was scheduled for March but was postponed when the immigration office closed due to the pandemic. Mr. Favi has already been detained for more than nine months while awaiting the adjudication of his immigration petition. After filing a petition on Mr. Favi’s behalf on Tuesday, the court set an expedited briefing schedule and a hearing for Friday, April 10, at 2:00 pm.
- An 18-year-old asylum seeker who entered the United States as an unaccompanied minor and was transferred from Office of Refugee Resettlement custody to ICE adult detention on his 18th birthday. The young man suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder which has been severely exacerbated by his prolonged detention while awaiting adjudication of his asylum application. A group home for young immigrant men is ready to welcome him if he is released. The young man's petition was filed Thursday afternoon.
The lawsuits detail the conditions immigrants face at the jail, where four people share a cell, toilet and sink, and sleep in bunk beds closer than the six-foot distance recommended by public health guidelines. Immigrants are forced to congregate in larger groups at various times throughout the day, including mealtime, and have not been provided face masks, gloves or hand sanitizer, even as new people continue to be brought into custody at the jail. The only information people in custody there have received about COVID-19 and how to prevent its spread is from television or phone calls with family members, the lawsuits state. Not all jail employees do wear face masks or other protective gear when interacting with immigrants at the jail, and have neglected to clean high-touch surfaces such as light switches and door knobs, the lawsuits state. Numerous immigrants in custody at the jail have had a cough or fever, symptoms associated with COVID-19, yet the staff at Jerome Combs had not quarantined anyone, and no one had been tested for the virus, according to the lawsuits.
Sidley partner Michelle Ramirez said she is proud to help lead the effort to seek release of these vulnerable immigrants. “These civil detainees are being held in a county jail while they await adjudication of their viable legal claims for immigration relief. The imminent and serious threat of COVID-19 spreading in our jails makes their continued detention dangerous,” she said.
“Under the conditions our clients have described, it is not a question of if, but when, a staff member or immigrant at Jerome Combs Detention Center will contract COVID-19,” said NIJC attorney Kate Melloy Goettel. “Once it arrives, as we’ve seen at other Illinois jails, it will be nearly impossible to contain.”
At Illinois’ Cook County Jail, for example, in late March a jail guard and two people in custody tested positive for COVID-19. Just over two weeks later, more than 200 people in custody and nearly 100 jail employees have tested positive. One person in custody has died. In Kankakee County, where the Jerome Combs Detention Center is located, more than 100 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and five people have died.
This week’s filings on behalf of NIJC clients most at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic are part of NIJC’s ongoing advocacy to call on ICE to suspend civil immigration enforcement and release all immigrants in its custody nationwide, in order to protect immigrant lives and the public health of all of our communities.