Homeland Security Has Six Weeks to Hand Over COVID-19 Records


(Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

By Araceli Cruz

September 25, 2020

“DHS is not above the law. COVID-19 is killing people in ICE custody,” said Nicole Elizabeth Ramos, an attorney with Al Otro Lado.

On May 6, a 57-year-old Salvadoran man became the first undocumented immigrant to die of COVID-19 while at an immigration detention center. The man contracted the coronavirus during his detainment at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, California, where 171 undocumented immigrants and 11 employees have COVID-19.

Why is this detention center rampant with coronavirus cases? That’s what a federal judge is wondering and why on Sept. 23, the judge ordered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to release records regarding the agency’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

US District Court Judge Otis D. Wright II told the DHS they have six weeks to turn over critical information regarding how Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and private immigrant prison contractors have protected or failed to protect the tens of thousands of immigrants in their custody. 

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However, the DHS said they would need 28 months to identify and provide the requested information. According to the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, which filed the lawsuit in June under the Freedom of Information Act, the DHS claimed that it was overburdened and that it would take years for it to process the records for release.

“At that rate, the pandemic would likely be over before ICE was required to provide the public with information about the public health disaster that is currently unfolding in these detention centers,” said Victor Hollenberg, a student attorney with the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic who represents the plaintiffs. 

But the judge didn’t buy arguments made by the DHS and called it “BS.”

The Mandel Legal Aid Clinic and Al Otro Lado, an immigration legal organization that is also part of this complaint against DHS, report that more than 5,000 immigrant detainees have tested positive for COVID-19, though advocates dispute this figure and allege it is much higher. ICE reports they currently have 596 detainees with COVID-19 cases

In a statement to The Americano, Melissa Flores from Al Otro Lado said that in August, 1,900 COVID testing kits were sent to Adelanto Detention Center. Yet, ICE refused to use a majority of them. 

“We have a client with an underlying health condition that had a heart attack and then sent back to Adelanto,” Flores said. “Another client only got sick after being at Adelanto.”

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According to the complaint, immigrants detained at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center and Otay Mesa Detention Center (both in California) have made consistent and countless reports of overcrowding, lack of medical care, and insufficient cleaning supplies, hygiene products, and personal protective equipment. Immigrants detained at both facilities have also reported facing retaliation after publicizing complaints about the conditions, including solitary confinement and attacks with tasers and pepper spray.   

“DHS is not above the law,” said Nicole Elizabeth Ramos, an attorney with Al Otro Lado. “COVID-19 is killing people in ICE custody.”

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) has previously reported similar conditions at the facilities they visited in June. Today, in a statement, the CHC said they have “called on ICE to safely and swiftly release those in custody to prevent further contagion and loss of life due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

UPDATE (September 25, 2020, 3:42 p.m.): The federal judge overseeing this case is Judge Otis D. Wright II. Not Judge Sabraw.


CATEGORIES: Coronavirus | Immigration


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