Less than a day after the ACLU of New Jersey and the national ACLU filed an emergency motion in federal court, ICE agreed to release two people with serious medical conditions from the Essex County Correctional Facility in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are deeply relieved to see our clients released from detention,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “As public health experts advised the court, this step was the only way to protect our clients’ lives and the health of the community at large. Crucially, we need to make sure that the release of detainees is the rule, not the exception.”

The habeas petition was filed Sunday, March 29, by the ACLU-NJ and the ACLU. This suit was the sixth filed by the ACLU around the country, and attorneys say more are in the works.

"We are thrilled that our clients will be released to practice social distancing in their own homes during this uncertain time," said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU's National Prison Project. "Immigration detention should not be a death sentence, but for our clients, it almost certainly is. It is unconscionable to keep people in civil detention under these circumstances. We will keep fighting for our clients in other detention centers and states."

To protect public health in the wake of COVID-19, the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General and the Office of the Public Defender recently reached an historic agreement that reduces the number of people jailed or incarcerated in the state’s county jails. By contrast, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has released a small group of medically vulnerable people from detention centers in New Jersey.

Even though immigration courts are currently closed, and cases stalled – ICE continues to lock up thousands more people in civil immigration detention at Essex, Bergen, and Hudson county jails and at the privately operated Elizabeth Detention Center. These jails all have reported confirmed cases of COVID-19, and people detained there have no way to protect themselves from this life-threatening disease.

Medical and public health experts have repeatedly sounded the alarm that detention centers, jails and prisons are tinderboxes for the spread of COVID-19, and releasing large numbers of people is the only way to reduce the spread and save lives of incarcerated people, as well as staff members who work in those facilities, and the communities they return home to.

“COVID-19 is a life-threatening disease that has no vaccine and no cure,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Farrin Anello. “People deprived of their liberty in a detention center are prevented from taking even the most basic steps recommended by public health experts during this pandemic, such as social distancing and increased hand-washing. It is immoral to hold people in detention centers in the midst of the worst public health crisis our country has faced in a century.”