A federal court on Friday partially granted the request of 16 civil immigration detainees to be released immediately from confinement. Each of the plaintiffs has one or more preexisting medical conditions putting them at a higher risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19, according to the lawsuit they filed against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Last month, a coalition of civil rights attorneys including the Center for Constitutional Rights refiled a lawsuit seeking the release of the detainees due to coronavirus concerns in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana. 

The case had been previously dismissed on April 6 by a judge in the Eastern District in New Orleans after the Eastern District Court held that venue was improper and the plaintiffs would need to re-file in the jurisdictions where they are physically located. 

When attorneys filed the Western District suit on April 14, they also requested a temporary restraining order (TRO) seeking the immediate release of the medically vulnerable detainees. On Friday, Judge Dee Drell and Magistrate Judge Joseph H.L. Perez-Montes issued the decision that the TRO would be granted in the form of a preliminary injunction requiring the immediate release of 14 of the 16 plaintiffs. 

The court declined to release one petitioner, Aracelio Rodriguez, stating that “district courts throughout the country have not found a reason to release detainees where no outbreak has been found and the threat of infection is speculated.” Rodriguez is held in Jackson Parish Correctional Center, where no COVID-19 cases have been confirmed so far.

Another plaintiff, Eduardo Devora Espinosa, was not addressed in the ruling. An attorney for the plaintiffs said that he was likely already released after ICE conducted a general review of potentially medically vulnerable detainees in April. 

Although the Court ordered the detainees’ release on Friday May 22nd, the order was stayed until May 26 to give the government time to decide whether to appeal the decision. If the government appeals, they may ask the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to stay the release of the plaintiffs further. If a stay is not granted, the government will have “14 days from May 26, 2020 to effect the contemplated releases,” and it must report compliance with the release order by filing with the court “within 5 days after the expiration of those 14 days.” 

The plaintiffs are all civil immigration detainees awaiting future hearings on their immigration cases. The lawsuit states that this type of detainee is held primarily to ensure attendance at court, and that detaining them under circumstances presenting a high risk of death is counterproductive toward that aim. 

The lawsuit argued that detention centers are hotbeds for the virus. Social distancing is often impossible in these facilities, as people are “housed in close quarters and in large groups, often with many dozens sleeping in one room, in beds spaced well under the distance of six feet apart that the CDC recommends to maintain social distancing.”

Further, detained individuals were not provided with masks, gloves, or other types of personal protective equipment, according to the complaint. In several facilities, not even guards, staff, or doctors used personal protective equipment when on duty. 

The government attempted to bolster their argument that the detainees should remain confined by filing an affidavit by Acting Assistant Field Office Director Matthew Reaves regarding LaSalle ICE Processing Center, where nine of the plaintiffs are held.

Reaves affirmed that “[a]s of 4:30 p.m. on May 18,2020 there are no known cases of ICE detainees as [sic] the LaSalle ICE Processing Center who are positive for COVID-19. In addition, there are no suspected COVID-19 cases.'” 

In the decision, Judge Drell, a Republican appointed by President George W. Bush, called into question Reaves’s affirmed statements, saying that “[a]s pointed out by Petitioners, this statement creates more questions than provides answers.” The Judge appeared to be skeptical, saying that “Only nine days ago. ICE reported fifteen (15) LaSalle detainees and two (2) LaSalle staff members contracted COVID-19. . . . As the virus runs a lengthy course, the court cannot help but wonder how LaSalle overcame the odds in such a quick span of time.”

He went on to say, “We can only speculate that some of these detainees were moved to other facilities as it is well known that ICE has continued its operations and not followed the lead of the Bureau of Prisons and Louisiana Department of Corrections, both of whom have largely precluded the movement of their inmates.”

The other seven plaintiffs are held in the Richwood, Winn, Catahoula, and Jackson Parish Correctional Centers, as well as the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center. Two guards employed at Richwood Correctional Center died in April after contracting COVID-19, and there have been 65 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the facility so far. 93 detainees have tested positive at Winn Correctional Center. 60 cases have been confirmed in Catahoula Correctional Center, and there have been 32 confirmed cases in Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center. 

When asked for comment, ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox reiterated that it is against ICE’s policy to comment on pending litigation, but noted again that “big picture, ICE has taken extensive precautions to limit the potential spread of COVID-19” and cited ICE’s website.

He also stated  ICE’s detained population has dropped by nearly a third since the beginning of March. As of May 16, ICE had 26,660 persons in custody vs. 38,537 as of February 29 – a decline of nearly 12,000 persons. ICE arrests dropped nearly 50 percent during the month of April — 5,604 removable foreign nationals were arrested nationwide in April compared to 10,154 during the month of March.

Although 14 of the plaintiffs were granted release, the Judge noted that the holding is limited. “[T]his case is decided entirely on the record developed in this case. The case, therefore, has no precedential value as to any other detainee at any other time.”

According to ICE’s website, it has 26,660 people in detention nationwide, and 2,535 detained individuals have been tested for COVID-19 so far. Over half of those tests (1,312) have come back positive. 

When asked about the result, Jeremy Jong, attorney for the plaintiffs called it “A good first step,” but added that “ICE is still continuing to hold hundreds and hundreds of people that are at the same risk as our clients.” 

“There are still hundreds of people who wake up and wonder if this is the day they will catch COVID and die because of its rapid spread. We are glad that the judge sided with us and saw the risk. But it is a damn shame that it had to get to this point that ice couldn’t care less about what life and death for hundreds of people,” Jong said.

“They fought this tooth and nail and dragged this out months. They decided to fight in federal court to keep people detained that they knew were high risk for COVID. Their behavior in this case was unconscionable.”