EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — A 58-year-old man suffers from diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea, and low blood oxygen levels. He is also at high risk of blood clots and takes blood thinners daily.
A 28-year-old woman has a history of smoking cigarettes for more than seven years and a high body mass index, which exceeds the CDC’s threshold of 40 for elevated risk for COVID-19.
A 34-year-old man suffers from chronic respiratory illness, as he has underdeveloped lungs due to premature birth. He has contracted the flu every winter for the past 10 years, in one instance becoming bedridden for weeks.
And a 37-year-old man suffers from high blood pressure and has difficulty breathing, chest pain and shortness of breath.
All four immigrants are being detained at the Montgomery Processing Center in Conroe, Texas, and all four are highly vulnerable to serious illness and death from the COVID-19 global pandemic, according to a lawsuit filed against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and DHS officials.
On Wednesday, the ACLU and the New York-based law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the immigrants, demanding that ICE comply with the Fifth Amendment and release the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of reports that an employee at the center who tested positive for the virus on March 23.
“Detaining our vulnerable clients where they are at a heightened risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 and suffering harm and likely even death is a clear violation of their constitutional rights,” Andre Segura, legal director for the ACLU of Texas, said in a news release. “Detention centers like the Montgomery Processing Center cannot adequately protect the lives of those like our clients: There is no way to practice social distancing in a detention center, and they do not have access to face masks or even regular access to basic hygiene. Limiting the number of people held in jails is critical to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak at MPC and the surrounding community.”
On Tuesday, nearly 30 organizations and government officials also called on ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to release detained migrants in response to the spread of COVID-19.
The advocates alleged a lack of information, protocols, and transparency from CBP and ICE regarding the health and well-being of detained migrants that also affect agents and their families.
ICE disputes all the allegations made against it. The agency said it released more than 160 people because they were deemed too high of risk or had other underlying medical issues. The also said it identified 600 detainees as “vulnerable.” It’s unclear how many of those people were released under court order.
A partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges said the lawsuit, at its core, seeks to prevent individuals from continued exposure to unsafe and dangerous health conditions.
“These are the same rights that we should expect every human being to enjoy,” said Paul Genender, head of litigation at the law firm’s Dallas office.
This lawsuit joins 10 others filed by the ACLU across the nation. Most courts have issued rulings saying that ICE must release vulnerable civil detainees because they cannot be subject to detention conditions as the threat of novel coronavirus exists.
The 58-year-old man, who is only identified as R.V.B, has been detained by ICE since February 2020. While at the Montgomery Processing Center (MPC), he became seriously ill and was taken to the emergency room, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. He remains weak and continues to feel unwell.
G.R, the 28-year-old woman, has lived in the Houston area since she was 3 years old. She has been detained by ICE at MPC since November 2019.
L.A.P.A, the 34-year-old, has been detained since March 21, and the 37-year-old has been detained since August 2019.
All of these people are detained because they are fighting an immigration case.
“We have now filed suits like this around the country because public health officials have been clear: Detention facilities are disaster zones for the spread of coronavirus, and our clients’ lives are gravely at risk,” said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “This is a matter of urgent health and safety for people in civil detention, as well as the staff who work in these facilities every day and the communities they go home to. Flattening the curve and avoiding worst-case health outcomes for everyone involves dramatically reducing the number of people in ICE detention so they can practice social distancing at home. For our clients, their lives depend on it.”
NM senator wants ICE, DHS to reduce detention population
On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, called on DHS and ICE to reduce mass detention in New Mexico facilities to “protect migrants and asylum seekers, facility staff, their families, and New Mexico communities from COVID-19 outbreaks.
In a letter to DHS Acting Director Chad Wolf and ICE Acting Director Matthew Albence, Udall urged the Trump administration to “reduce mass detention, prioritizing the most vulnerable, who do not pose threats to public safety or national security.”
Udall’s letter follows confirmation that 37 detainees, 11 detention facility employees, and 63 ICE employees tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 9.
“There is a long history of disease outbreaks in detention facilities,” Udall wrote. “The conditions at detention facilities coupled with the risk factors of COVID-19 transmission create a deep public health risk to everyone entering and detained at detention facilities across the country. The reality of living in close, confined quarters, often with multiple people sharing rooms and any lack of additional cleaning or sanitary precautions creates a tinderbox effect that allows disease to spread rapidly. Among the most at-risk individuals are employees who report to work at detention facilities and prisons and return home to their families on a daily basis.
New Mexico is home to three ICE detention centers: Cibola County Correctional Center, Torrance County Detention Facility, and Otero County Processing Center.