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ACLU Lawsuit Demands Release of High Medical Risk Immigration Detainees Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

March 30, 2020

Suit on behalf of two men with serious illnesses, filed by national ACLU and ACLU-NJ, calls for emergency release based on grave threat of coronavirus in immigration detention

The ACLU of New Jersey, the ACLU National Prison Project, the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, and the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project filed a lawsuit calling for the immediate release of two people in immigration detention with medical conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

The plaintiffs in the suit are detained in the Essex County Correctional Facility and face heightened risk of death or severe health consequences if infected with the virus.

“The dire situation in civil detention facilities makes the release of our clients a matter of life and death,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Farrin Anello. “In ICE detention, close contact and a lack of access to basic supplies are facts of life – it is simply impossible to maintain social distancing in these environments, which have become hotbeds for transmission of COVID-19. The lives of our clients, who have severe medical conditions, hang in the balance.”

One of the plaintiffs, a father who came to the United States over two decades ago as a refugee from Russia, had open-heart surgery before entering detention and has diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. The second plaintiff, a father who has lived in New Jersey for over a decade, has diabetes and high cholesterol, and has been coughing up blood.

“This is the fourth suit we have filed around the country in the last two weeks, with more to come,” said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “Public health officials have consistently instructed us all that reducing the number of people held in immigrant detention centers — as well as jails, prisons, and other similar facilities — is a critical step to avoiding a humanitarian disaster from COVID-19. ICE must do its part to flatten the curve along with everyone else by releasing people from its custody, starting with the most vulnerable to serious illness or death.”

There is growing recognition among medical experts, as well as courts and prisons, that release from detention is the only way to protect people from COVID-19. Government officials in New Jersey and nationally have recognized the heightened risks of COVID-19 transmission in detention facilities, and the need to release people from detention in the interest of public health. In New Jersey, since March 24, hundreds of low-risk detainees in county jails have been released to prevent further spread of coronavirus. ICE has also released a smaller number of people with medical conditions, but others, like our clients, remain detained with their lives at risk.

“Basic humanity demands that our government protect people’s lives in the face of severe illness and death, and our Constitution requires it,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “If we as a country are serious about stemming the spread of Coronavirus and saving lives, we must protect everyone, no matter where they happen to be.”

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