Many Remain in Grave Danger, Advocates Say
April 30, 2020, Alexandria, Louisiana – A federal judge has recommended the release of 13 medically vulnerable people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention in Louisiana. The 13 are among 15 people with serious health issues that make them particularly susceptible to developing life-threatening COVID-19 symptoms who filed an emergency petition this month for release from six ICE detention facilities in Louisiana. Those facilities are notoriously overcrowded, unhealthy, and lack adequate medical care and expertise. Attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIP-NLG) praised the release of the 13 individuals, but warned that continuing to detain the remaining two in already unsafe facilities amidst near-certain coronavirus outbreaks amounts to a potential death sentence for a civil immigration violation. The magistrate judge’s opinion is a recommendation that must be accepted by the district judge to become final.
“No one deserves to die from COVID-19 because of government abuse and indifference,” lead plaintiff Tatalu Helen Dada, who is studying to be a nurse and who was ordered released by the court, wrote on an op-ed this month. “The government has a duty to adequately and humanely care for those it has taken and detained. During this pandemic, that means releasing me and others whose lives and health hang in the balance.”
Individuals will be released from LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, Richwood Correctional Center in Monroe, Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Pine Prairie, and Catahoula Correctional Center in Harrisonburg. On the grounds that there have – as yet– been no reported Covid-19 cases there, the judge declined to release a plaintiff from Jackson Parish Correctional Center in Jonesboro.
Regrettably, the court also declined to release Sirous Asgari, a 59-year-old Iranian national with a suite of health complications, despite recognizing his “unfortunate circumstances” – namely being in a Winn medical facility and presumed to be suffering from Covid-19.
While praising the release of these 13 people, attorneys emphasized that the risk of deadly COVID-19 outbreaks to all detained individuals, including medically vulnerable plaintiffs who were not ordered released, is high. According to expert declarations filed by Tulane University and Yale public health experts, it is impossible for the detention facilities to comply with CDC guidelines around social distancing, quarantine, and treatment, and the facilities’ already-inadequate medical facilities will inevitably be overwhelmed.
Attorneys warned that concerns raised by the experts are not limited to these six facilities, citing crowded and unsanitary conditions, lack of mask and glove use by staff, limited information about how to prevent transmission of coronavirus, a high proportion of elderly people and individuals with existing health conditions, and subpar medical facilities throughout U.S. prisons and other detention facilities. Advocates and prisoners nationwide are sounding the alarm about COVID-19 outbreaks in detention facilities, which have reported some of the nation’s largest percentages of infections for the population.
Sirine Shebaya, Executive Director of the National Immigration Project said, “We are delighted that the court has seen the dangers to our clients of their detention during this pandemic. While the decision is not final yet, we hope to be celebrating our clients’ release very soon, and hope that this proves to be a starting point for many more releases from these dangerous immigration detention facilities.”
The 13 people ordered to be released today include two hunger strikers already protesting their detentions and conditions of confinement whose bodies have begun to break down due to their protests. They report extreme weight loss, kidney and liver disease, loss of vision, weakness to the point of requiring a wheelchair, dangerously low blood pressure, and risk of organ failure. Other individuals scheduled for release/who remain who are not hunger striking also report serious health issues, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, asthma, autoimmune disorders, and otherwise severely compromised immune systems. They will each be released to their families, subject to reasonable conditions set by ICE.
Baher Azmy, Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights said, “We are gratified for the court’s order, which protects our clients from grave harm and recognizes what is plain to everyone – that all immigrants in ICE detention are now living in an epidemiological tinder box. They must all be released. We hope this is one step toward a broader understanding about the cruelty and arbitrariness of ICE’s mass incarceration system in this country.”
Co-counsel in the case are Bill Quigley of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, Jeremy Jong in New Orleans, and R. Andrew Free in Nashville, Tennessee.
The case is Dada v. Witte and was filed in federal court in Alexandria, Louisiana.
For more information and to read today’s decision, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.
The National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIPNLG) is a national non-profit organization that provides technical assistance and support to community-based immigrant organizations, legal practitioners, and all advocates seeking and working to advance the rights of noncitizens. NIPNLG utilizes impact litigation, advocacy, and public education to pursue its mission. Learn more at nipnlg.org. Follow NIPNLG on social media: National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild on Facebook, @NIPNLG on Twitter.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.