NEW ORLEANS – The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, alongside the Scott Law Firm, LLC, has filed suit in federal court for the release of a Togolese immigrant being detained at Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana.
The petition for habeas corpus asks the District Court for the Western District of Louisiana to release Mr. Kossi Degbe as required by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Zadvydas v. Davis, which ruled that detaining immigrants for longer than six months, when there is no foreseeable prospect of their removal, amounts to indefinite detention and is therefore unlawful.
“Mr. Degbe is being unlawfully and indefinitely detained in dangerous conditions where he remains at imminent risk of contracting COVID-19, a pandemic that has disproportionately killed Black and Brown people,” said ACLU of Louisiana Legal Director Nora Ahmed. “He’s being held at a facility where there appears to be insufficient mask-wearing and social distancing, and he’s terrified of contracting COVID-19 because he suffers from preexisting conditions that place him at greater risk of severe illness and death. The law and Supreme Court precedent are clear that the federal government cannot incarcerate immigrants indefinitely, yet our client is in that very position. Togo does not cooperate with the United States on issues of removal. ICE has tried unsuccessfully to remove our client for more than three and half years now. Enough is enough—that’s why we’re asking the court to order ICE to release Mr. Degbe immediately.”
In total, Mr. Degbe has been in ICE detention for more than three years and seven months. He was previously detained from 2012 to 2015. He was ordered removed in 2012 and despite his timely appeals, the order became final in 2014. Mr. Degbe, with the help of counsel, filed a habeas corpus petition in the District Court of Maryland in 2015, arguing that the Zadvydas ruling rendered his continued detention unlawful because he had been detained for longer than six months after his final removal order was issued. When the court asked ICE to present evidence to justify Mr. Degbe’s continued detention, ICE promptly released him in February 2015.
“This case underscores the urgency of ending the federal government’s deportation and detention machine, which has separated families and terrorized immigrant communities,” said Alanah Odoms, ACLU of Louisiana executive director. “Under the previous administration, Louisiana became the epicenter of a brutal and racist mass detention agenda and it is vital for our country and our state to turn the page on these unlawful and inhumane practices.”
Following his release, Mr. Degbe lived in Maryland for five years, where he worked at a WingStop and was an active member of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church. He attended every required check-in with ICE. Nonetheless, ICE—unexpectedly and without any apparent reason—rearrested Mr. Degbe in February 2020. Although he was initially detained in Maryland, ICE has repeatedly shipped him around the country to facilities in Arizona, Alabama, Texas, and Louisiana, where he is currently detained.
Mr. Degbe’s counsel is also seeking a preliminary injunction, which, if granted, would allow Mr. Degbe to be released pending a decision on the petition for habeas corpus. Mr. Degbe, who suffers from hypertension and benign prostatic hyperplasia, is bunking next to an individual who recently tested positive for COVID-19.
Last year, the ACLU and the ACLU of Louisiana released a first-of-its-kind report on immigration detention under the prior administration, combining quantitative and qualitative data from visits to five detention centers, including Winn Correctional Center. The report documented poor conditions and inadequate medical care—even before the COVID-19 outbreak—and the due process hurdles faced by immigrants held in these remote locations.