A coalition of civil rights attorneys has filed a federal lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the wardens of several civil immigration detention centers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, demanding the immediate release of seventeen detainees who are at high risk for serious injury or death as a result of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. 

The suit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in New Orleans. 

The plaintiffs range in age from 28 to 78, and all have medical conditions that, in the words of attorney Jeremy Jong, render them “sitting ducks” for a coronavirus infection. 

The seventeen detainees have a variety of conditions including diabetes, heart disease, asthma, malnutrition and hypertension. Most of them suffer from more than one medical condition, putting them at a higher risk of a severe or fatal case of COVID-19, according to the lawsuit. 

Additionally, the plaintiffs charge that the state of the facilities is such that an outbreak is very likely. According to the suit, the detention centers have extremely close living quarters, inadequate sanitation, and a shortage of basic hygiene products like soap, hand sanitizer, and personal protective equipment. 

ICE spokesman Bryan Cox declined to comment on the lawsuit specifically, saying the agency does not comment on pending litigation. More broadly, however, he denied that ICE has failed to take proper precautions against the transmission of COVID-19. 

“Big picture, ICE has taken extensive precautions to limit the potential spread of COVID-19,” Cox said in an email to The Lens, adding that the agency has posted a summary of the measures it is taking to care for detainees on its website. “In short, testing is being conducted at all ICE facilities in accordance with CDC guidance, and all persons are being screened upon arrival at all ICE facilities. This applies to detainees, staff and visitors.” 

Cox also noted that ICE announced last month, in response to the spread of the virus, it would halt immigration enforcement against foreign nationals who have not committed crimes. Cox said that only two percent of people facing ICE immigration enforcement action were placed under detention last year and, of those, 70 percent were subject to mandatory detention under federal law. 

“Of those persons who are detained, ICE makes those custody determinations on a case-by-case basis based on the totality of the circumstances, and evaluates persons for potential release using the same process,” Cox wrote. “Factors such as age, medical conditions, etc., are part of that consideration.”

The lawsuit alleges that ICE has violated the plaintiff’s Fifth Amendment rights by refusing to release them from the facilities — the LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, Louisiana, the Richwood Correctional Center, in Richwood, Louisiana, the Winn Correctional Center, in Winnfield, Louisiana, the Adams Correctional Center in Natchez, Mississippi, and the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama — when the risk of serious harm or death is so great. They are requesting that the court orders them to be placed into an alternative to detention program, like supervised release, while their immigration proceedings are ongoing.

“The government has the right under certain circumstances to detain people. What it doesn’t have the right to do is detain people in situations in which there is a substantial possibility that they will die. And that is exactly what they are doing here,” Jong said. “Our primary case is that [ICE and these facilities] are violating people’s Fifth Amendment rights to be free of this type of punishment.”

Each of the 17 plaintiffs is held in the legal custody of Dianne Witte, the interim director of the ICE New Orleans Field Office. This office directs operations for all of the immigrant detention centers in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. 

Immigration detention facilities in Louisiana held about 7,000 people as of February, the second-highest number of immigration detainees after Texas, the Daily Advertiser reported earlier this month.

Currently, the only known measures an individual can take to reduce the risk of COVID-19 are to practice social distancing and vigilant hygiene. However, the complaint says that “social distancing is “meaningless in these detention centers, where detainees are in constant close contact with each other and with facility staff.” 

Even the most basic hygiene practice—routine hand washing—is described in the suit as “difficult at best given minimal access to soap and sinks.”

At the LaSalle ICE Processing Center, where eight of the plaintiffs are detained, 80 people share one dorm and spend more than 20 hours per day indoors, according to the complaint. Beds are close together, dorms are cleaned only once per day and the doctors in the medical unit do not wear masks, it says. 

The plaintiffs say that they are “trapped in facilities which can only be described as breeding grounds for the disease.” 

Further, potential carriers of COVID-19 are coming and going from the detention facilities every day, as the facilities continue to transfer and admit new detainees. Fifteen people have been brought into LaSalle over the past two weeks, including one who was coughing and sneezing, the complaint charges, adding that there are no consistent coronavirus screening procedures in place.

Louisiana is currently experiencing a staggering exponential growth of COVID-19 cases, and one of the fastest spreading COVID-19 outbreaks of anywhere in the world. Orleans and Jefferson parishes also have death rates among the highest in the country. 

Jong said a severe outbreak is inevitable. “This is going to happen,” he said, noting the recent coronavirus outbreak in Oakdale prison, where two people have died and a third is in critical condition. 

“Everyone is stuck in one room – what that means is, when one person gets it, everyone is going to get it,” Jong said. He called the situation a “tinderbox.”

The complaint also stressed that a COVID-19 outbreak in a detention center would place the surrounding community at risk—“the rural communities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama in which these detention centers are located have very limited health care infrastructure,” and their medical centers are already overloaded.

The 17 plaintiffs in this lawsuit are currently being held in non-criminal confinement. Their attorneys argue that the only legally legitimate purpose for confining noncriminal immigration detainees is to reduce their flight risk and ensure that they will attend a hearing on the merits of their immigration case. This purpose “is fundamentally eviscerated where detained persons . . . are exposed to coronavirus, symptomatic, seriously ill, or even dead.”

“When the government is detaining someone — they cannot put the people who are detained at a substantial risk of harm,” said Jong. “What we have right now, is a situation in which ICE knows all the risks of what can happen to these people, especially high-risk people. It is right up there on the CDC website. And [ICE] is disregarding that.”