October 9, 2020, Lafayette, LA – Late yesterday, 13 medically vulnerable people held in immigration detention in Louisiana filed an urgent request for release due to their high risk of life-threatening COVID-19 infection. Numerous courts around the country have recognized the heightened risk of COVID-19 posed by large detained populations and ordered the release of many of those at heightened risk of severe illness. Today’s filing seeks release from the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center (PPIPC) in Pine Prairie, Louisiana and the LaSalle Ice Processing Center (LIPC) in Jena, Louisiana.
“ICE is playing with fire,” said Matthew Vogel of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIPNLG). “Months into this pandemic, ICE is ignoring even the most basic virus precautions that have become a fact of life for the rest of us. Rather than releasing vulnerable people and seeking to reduce its reliance on detention, ICE continues to needlessly lock up people, trapping them in facilities that endanger their lives.”
Those seeking release report a variety of health conditions, including asthma, hypertension, heart disease, kidney disease, and obesity, all of which put them at heightened risk of life-threatening COVID-19 and many of which qualify as disabilities under federal law. Those detained also report that public health measures recommended to limit the spread of the coronavirus are not enforced at either the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center, or the LaSalle ICE Processing Center. Large groups of nearly 100 people share eating areas where they are required to sit close together, and at least two food servers at Pine Prairie have tested positive for COVID-19. Telephones, bathrooms, and showers are shared and not disinfected between uses. Toilets do not have lids and are in close proximity to living spaces, making aerosolized fecal transmission a very real threat. Mask-wearing is not enforced, and staff often do not wear masks. Detained people are required to clean their own sleeping quarters, common areas, and bathrooms, while access to cleaning supplies, soap, and hand sanitizer is limited.
Today’s filing emphasizes that the particularly unsafe conditions at PPIPC and LIPC are even more dangerous given the rates of coronavirus infection in Louisiana and in the regions where they are located. Louisiana has seen an especially grave outbreak of the coronavirus. It recently saw a second spike of cases, and state health officials are warning of another surge in cases coinciding with the fall flu season. In Evangeline Parish, where PIPPC is located, there have been over 1,300 cases and 34 deaths, and LaSalle Parish, where LIPC is located, has seen over 430 cases and 10 deaths. Both are rural communities with limited healthcare infrastructure.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reports that there have been 65 total cases within PPIPC and 40 at LIPC, with 7 active cases there —figures that are almost certainly an underestimate because ICE does not engage in regular testing or report cases among contractors, who are primarily responsible for operations at PPIPC and LIPC. The New Orleans ICE Field Office, under whose jurisdiction the facilities fall, reports that over 1,000 detained people and staff, combined, have tested positive for COVID-19; three staff members have died. Meanwhile, ICE continues to transfer people—including people who have tested positive for COVID-19—between facilities in Louisiana, as well as to and from other states.
“ICE’s continued refusal to take the most basic precautions to protect the human beings it detains demonstrates that release is the only safe option,” said Ghita Schwarz, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Immigrants in detention have sickened and died during this pandemic at a shocking rate. There is just no legal or moral justification for endangering our clients, others with whom they are detained, detention center staff, or the communities where the detention centers are located.”
Attorneys emphasize that a court order releasing these individuals is urgent, as they remain detained in crowded, unsanitary conditions despite official calls for releases to limit the spread of the virus. The Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice published a letter calling on lower courts to minimize the number of people detained and to conduct a comprehensive assessment to determine who among those detained is at heightened risk. Early in the pandemic, two Department of Homeland Security medical experts sent a whistleblower letter to Congress insisting that it “is essential to consider releasing all detainees who do not pose an immediate risk to public safety.” Yet the 13 people requesting release today remain detained despite being at grave risk of life-threatening infection.
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.