A federal judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit filed last week by a group of civil rights attorneys who requested the immediate release of 17 immigration detainees held in facilities in three Southern states. 

The lawsuit argued that the detainees were at high risk of severe complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The lawyers asked that they be released on their own recognizance or be placed in a monitored release program pending the disposition of their immigration proceedings. 

Judge Greg Guidry of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans dismissed the case on technical grounds, holding that the detention centers were not within the court’s jurisdiction.

The basis for the dismissal was that the district in which a prisoner is confined is the proper district to consider a habeas corpus challenge to present confinement, according to the court. In other words, a confined person who seeks release must file suit in the district where their detention center is located.

The Eastern District covers Southeast Louisiana. The facilities are located in North and Central Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. 

The suit was originally filed in the Eastern District because that is the location of the New Orleans ICE field office. This office supervises the immigration enforcement actions of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama — the states in which the plaintiffs are confined in various civil detention facilities.

The plaintiffs had argued that the wardens of each facility did “not have the independent authority to release any Plaintiff from detention” and that they could not “move, transfer, or release Plaintiffs without an express directive from the New Orleans Field Office.”

The court rejected the plaintiff’s apparent concerns, stating “[t]here is no doubt that a district court has jurisdiction to entertain an alien’s habeas petition . . . if that alien is detained within that court’s district.”

Further, the plaintiffs argued that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which sets precedent for the Eastern District of Louisiana, had not yet addressed the issue of whether or not immigration detention cases fall under an exception to the “general rule that the proper respondent is the warden of the facility where the prisoner is being held.” 

Guidry acknowledged that the issue had not yet been decided but declined “to guess whether [the Fifth Circuit] might recognize an exception in immigrant detainee cases” to this general rule.

The court instead held that the district in which the warden of each detention facility is located is the proper district to address the merits of the plaintiff’s claims, rather than the Eastern District, stating that it “lacks jurisdiction over the wardens,” and therefore, “lacks jurisdiction over Plaintiffs’ . . . claims.”

ICE spokesman Bryan Cox declined to comment on pending litigation, but reaffirmed his statement to The Lens from last week, which generally disputed claims that ICE detention facilities were not taking proper precautions to control the spread of the disease.

The plaintiffs can still refile in the court districts where the facilities are located. Asked if that was under consideration, an attorney for the plaintiffs told The Lens on Monday that the group is assessing its options. He declined to comment further.