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ACLU drops coronavirus lawsuit after clients released from immigration detention

Otay Mesa Detention Center
The front entrance to Otay Mesa Detention Center in south San Diego.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

ACLU drops coronavirus lawsuit after clients are released from immigration detention

The American Civil Liberties Union has asked a San Diego federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit related to the COVID-19 pandemic after its four plaintiffs were released from immigration custody.

The ACLU had sued Immigration and Customs Enforcement to call for the four detainees — whose medical conditions put them at higher risk of serious illness or death from the coronavirus — to be set free due to the pandemic. Two of the detainees were held at Otay Mesa Detention Center, which has become a hot spot for the virus; the other two were held at Imperial Regional Detention Facility.

“Our plaintiffs’ release from custody is a victory for them and their families,” said Monika Langarica, attorney with the ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “We urge ICE to continue reducing its population of detained people in accordance with public health experts’ recommendations during this pandemic. ICE detention should never be a death sentence.”

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The man held at Otay Mesa has leukemia, and the woman held at the south San Diego facility has lung disease. Both were released from custody Friday night.

The two people released from Imperial Regional Detention Facility, a husband-and-wife pair, are HIV- positive. The couple were released Thursday.

Twelve ICE detainees had tested positive for the novel coronavirus as of Friday. Four other inmates at Otay Mesa Detention Center who are in criminal custody have also been confirmed to have COVID-19.

So far, ICE has said there are no positive cases at Imperial Regional Detention Facility.

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ICE has said that it is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for detention centers and that it would review cases to possibly release detainees who are high risk.

As confirmed COVID-19 cases have increased among ICE detainees nationwide, advocates, attorneys and elected officials have all called for more people to be released from custody, particularly those who are at high risk of more serious symptoms.

“The horrifying conditions at Otay Mesa Detention Center are unacceptable. Every day that officials continue to lock up low-risk and vulnerable people is another day that people in U.S. custody along with countless facility and court personnel, legal representatives, witnesses and family members are put at risk of a preventable death from a deadly virus,” said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).

“We are in a moment of crisis that requires leaders to respond swiftly and humanely in the interest of public health. The Department of Homeland Security has failed to take sufficient commonsense actions that would save lives. That needs to change — now.”

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California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra on Monday also joined in the call for the inmates’ release.

“Failure to act will not only harm immigrants in civil detention, it could also impact community hospitals that will need to mobilize a medical response if nothing is done,” he said. “It’s going to take all of us working together to get through this challenge and we’re asking the federal government to do what’s right.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) introduced a bill Monday that would release many detainees from immigration custody in light of the pandemic.

Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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