Preliminary injunction filed in federal court seeks to reinstate ICE’s humanitarian parole protocol to release people from detention and save lives
WASHINGTON – Today, Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the ACLU of Louisiana filed an emergency motion for preliminary injunction in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking the immediate release of asylum seekers who remain under the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) amid the spread of COVID-19 in ICE detention centers.
The preliminary injunction seeks to immediately and fully reinstate the humanitarian parole procedure to begin freeing asylum seekers from ICE detention amid the COVID-19 crisis. The motion was filed as part of an existing class action lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the New Orleans ICE Field Office challenging the field office’s blanket parole denial policy that has left thousands of asylums seekers languishing in ICE prisons throughout the Deep South despite having followed asylum procedures at the border and having met the legal criteria for release on humanitarian parole, pursuant to DHS’s own 2009 Parole Directive.
“Seeking asylum is a fundamental, internationally-recognized human right,” said Mich Gonzalez, a staff attorney with the SPLC, “but shamefully, our government has relegated asylum seekers to prisons that amount to death traps as the pandemic spreads,” continued Gonzalez. “Predictably, ICE has proven itself to be woefully incapable at providing even the most basic and essential care necessary to protect lives from COVID-19. We cannot look away now and allow ICE to endanger thousands of precious lives,” added Gonzalez.
Appalling conditions – including the lack of soap and hand sanitizer, the inability to social distance amid overcrowding and medical units whose care begins and ends with ibuprofen – have received more attention in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The horrific and dysfunctional medical care in ICE facilities has been well-documented long before COVID-19. The pandemic compounds these failures and detained people have no way to protect themselves while in detention,” said Bruce Hamilton, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Louisiana. “Because of ICE’s neglect, their facilities are like a petri dish where an infection will inevitably lead to a terrible outbreak,” continued Hamilton. “The need for asylum seekers to be free is now more urgent than ever.”
Asylum seekers have described how the spread of COVID-19 has heightened the already inadequate and dangerous conditions in ICE facilities.
“A crucial part of staying well while living with HIV is eating plenty of healthy food to keep my immune system as strong as possible,” said one asylum seeker and political dissident from Venezuela. “This has been impossible.” The Venezuelan man is currently detained at LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, Louisiana despite meeting all the requirements for release on humanitarian parole and having a sponsor in Texas. “Should I be released from detention, I plan to live in my sponsor’s home in Texas and self-quarantine in order to protect my life and health.”
“While in detention, I have never had access to hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial wipes, gloves, or masks,” said a Cuban client detained at South Louisiana Correctional Facility in Basile, Louisiana. “ICE and detention center officials are actively putting our lives at risk by denying us even the most basic hygiene and sanitation supplies,” continued the woman.
At South Louisiana, existing H1N1 quarantine measures have raised alarm to what continued detention would look like as COVID-19 transmission increases on the inside. The Cuban woman’s dorm was recently combined with a dorm that was under quarantine for H1N1.
“Women who joined us from the quarantined dorm have been telling us about how they were treated,” the client said in her declaration filed with the preliminary injunction. “Some placed in isolation said they were not provided the opportunity to bathe for three consecutive days, they were sometimes denied water, and they were not provided food consistently. The women also confirmed that their sheets and clothes were not washed during the quarantine, and they were not allowed to wear their undergarments. They also said doctors never came to check on them while under quarantine, and not once did any officers come to clean the dorm during the quarantine. They look so sickly.”
In Louisiana detention centers, ICE has made an already dire situation worse. Fearing a coronavirus outbreak, asylum seekers in detention centers across the country have taken to demonstrations, including hunger strikes, to demand their release. ICE has responded to the peaceful protests with violence, including the use of pepper spray, or ‘pepper balls.’
A Cameroonian asylum seeker and political dissident fleeing torture and death in his home country described a recent incident in LaSalle Detention Center: “In retaliation of the protest, officers in riot gear came to intervene. They entered our dorm and sprayed tear gas. I fell and was unable to exert control over my body and limbs.”
The Cameroonian man, also a client, has a sponsor and ICE could release him on humanitarian parole. He said: “If I am released, I plan to self-quarantine in my cousin’s home to protect myself from COVID-19. I hope I am released to my family soon, so I can begin to heal from the extensive trauma I have suffered.”
The SPLC and ACLU of Louisiana maintain that ICE itself holds the solution to mitigating the myriad of crises now playing out in its detention network. The agency can protect the lives of thousands by simply following its own internal parole procedure and begin releasing asylum seekers from detention. But despite a preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg in September of 2019 ordering the New Orleans ICE Field Office to resume its parole process, the office’s parole grant rates remain well-below the historical precedent.