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‘Freedom Is Simply Too Much’: Outrage After Judge Stays Own Order Demanding Release of ICE Detainees


A federal judge on Tuesday morning issued relief to a group of undocumented immigrant detainees currently being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Early Tuesday evening, the same judge effectively reversed himself–ruling in favor of the Trump administration’s request for a stay of his earlier order.

Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the detainees are being held in civil detention in the York County Prison and Pike County Correctional facility in Pennsylvania while awaiting the final disposition of their immigration cases.

And every one of those people has valid fears for their life due to the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic–which recently made its way into both of the facilities in question.

“Each Petitioner suffers from chronic medical conditions and faces an imminent risk of death or serious injury if exposed to COVID-19,” U.S. District Judge John Jones noted in his initial order.

Jones dejectedly noted the court’s prescience [emphasis in original]:

Less than one week ago, we found that the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak in the Facilities constituted irreparable harm to substantially similar Petitioners, despite the fact that there were, at that time, no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Facilities. In so doing, we noted that “it is not a matter of if COVID-19 will enter Pennsylvania prisons, but when it is finally detected therein.”

“We have, unfortunately, been proven correct in this regard,” the original order continued. “As of the time of this writing, the Pike County Correctional Facility has officially reported that four ICE detainees housed therein have tested positive for COVID-19.6 Four Pike County Correctional employees have also tested positive. An additional detainee at York County Prison has also tested positive.”

“And we can only assume that these numbers may well be much higher than reported—we have allegations before us that requests by detainees for COVID-19 tests have not been granted, despite explicit knowledge that the virus has entered the Facilities.”

Jones went on to list the unsanitary conditions in those lock-ups:

We also have further declarations that no effective containment measures have been put into place to protect Petitioners. Officers and medical staff, who regularly leave the confines of the Facilities and have ample opportunities to contract the virus elsewhere, do not reliably wear gloves and masks when interacting with inmates. Temperature checks are infrequently conducted, even among detainees who had close contact with others who have since tested positive. The cell blocks which housed those who test positive are not thoroughly evacuated and cleaned to prevent the spread. We even have reports that detainees exhibiting COVID-like symptoms are remaining in general housing for days, and that once they are quarantined, no testing is being provided to those who remain.

The Keystone State ACLU sued to have 22 at-risk immigrants released. Over a dozen similar lawsuits have been filed across the country. To date, the ACLU has freed some 50 people over COVID-19 fears.

Jones’s original order demanded the wardens of both facilities release the immigrants immediately and “on their own recognizance.”

The initial decision also offered a caustic dressing down of ICE’s inattention to the immigrants’ and their own agents’ safety.

“It now seems that our worst fears have been realized—COVID-19 is spreading, and not nearly enough is being done to combat it,” the judge noted. “We cannot allow the Petitioners before us, all at heightened risk for severe complications from COVID- 19, to bear the consequences of ICE’s inaction. We therefore find that irreparable harm faces the Petitioners before us should they contract COVID-19.”

Despite his own concerns and use of rhetoric in his initial order describing the potentially “catastrophic” nightmare scenario faced by the country and federal incarceration system, Jones, in keeping with the Trump administration’s wishes, issued a stay of his original order.

The self-reversal was immediately slammed.

Freedom is simply too much for the deportation machine to stomach,” noted immigration attorney R. Andrew Free.

“The plan is to let them all get sick, deport the ones they can, let suffer [and] die ones they can’t,” Free said of ICE’s admitted lack of plans on how to deal with the deadly contagion. “The plan is to say they can’t be released [because] they’re not sick, and then, when they get sick, to say they can’t be released [because] of it.That’s the plan.”

Immigrants rights advocates have been at the forefront of warning about the dangers posed by the pandemic.

“Thousands of doctors and hundreds of advocates have been urgently sounding the alarm since early March that people in immigration detention are sitting ducks in a system notorious for its fatally flawed medical care and abysmal conditions that only worsen in times of crisis,” Detention Watch Network Executive Director Silky Shah in a statement provided to Law&Crime. “Even the former acting director of ICE, John Sandweg, has called for the release of people in detention.”

“The number of COVID-19 cases in ICE facilities is rising rapidly,” Shah continued. “The evidence is clear: if ICE continues to keep people locked up, we know that a COVID-19 related death of a person in immigration detention is imminent. ICE will cause preventable deaths if they don’t act now by releasing all people from detention.”

[image via John Moore/Getty Images]

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