South Texas ICE detention facilities sued to release vulnerable detainees

3 years 10 months 5 days ago Wednesday, April 15 2020 Apr 15, 2020 April 15, 2020 2:25 PM April 15, 2020 in News - Local

A lawsuit demanding the release of immigration detainees feared to be medically vulnerable from Port Isabel Detention Center and two other South Texas facilities was filed Wednesday afternoon.

The lawsuit naming U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, was filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid and immigration attorney Carlos M. Garcia. He representing a 78 year-old man held at Port Isabel Detention Center for the last five weeks. The facility has already had one contract employee test positive for COVID19. 

"He has underlying medical conditions such as hypertension, pre-diabetes and arthritis. And, his condition is such that were he to contract COVID-19 he would be at significant risk of serious illness or death," said Efren Olivarez, the Racial & Economic Justice Program Director at Texas Civil Rights Project. 

Two other clients held in Laredo immigration detention centers are also named in the lawsuit. One is a 62 year-old man with underlying health conditions and the other is a 28 year-old man with asthma. 

Previous requests to have detainees released without involving a lawsuit proved fruitless. "We already went to the deportation officer, to the officer in charge of the Port Isabel Detention Center," said Olivarez referring to the oldest detainee named in the lawsuit. "We got our letter back saying that they had considered the petition and they were denying it."

ICE issued a memo March 18 to field office directors and deputy field office directors directing them to review the cases of those detained in their "area of responsibility who were over the age of 70 or pregnant to determine whether continued detention was appropriate," according to an email obtained and used as an exhibit by the legal team representing the detainees. 

That email from ICE Field Office Director Peter B. Berg dated April 4 included an updated list of what medical conditions could make a person a higher-risk for serious illness from COVID-19 as identified by the CDC. It includes:

  • Pregnant detainees or those having delivered in the last two weeks
  • Detainees over 60 years old
  • Detainees of any age having chronic illnesses which would make them immune-compromised, including but not limited to:

    1) Blood Disorders
    2) Chronic Kidney Disease
    3) Compromised immune system ( e.g., ongoing treatment such as chemotherapy or radiation, received an organ or bone marrow transplant, taking high doses of corticosteroids or other immunosuppressant medications)
    4) Endocrine disorders
    5) Metabolic disorders 
    6) Heart disease Lung disease 
    7) Neurological and neurologic and neurodevelopment conditions

"The presence of one of the factors listed above should be considered a significant discretionary factor weighing in favor of release. To be clear, however, it may not always be determinative," stated Berg in the email. The decision from ICE to release the detainees will also factor in their risk of flight and whether crimes in their history will make them a danger to the community.

The immigration advocate organizations are requesting an improvement in the facilities' overall operations to keep the virus from affected those in custody. "The first thing that we're asking in this lawsuit is that the facilities themselves adopt all the recommendations of social distancing, of hyper-vigilant hygiene, disinfecting surfaces and items," said Olivarez. "But, that is in practice extremely difficult to do if not impossible. So, the alternative is to release these particular vulnerable detainees."

So far, only one contracted employee at PIDC tested positive, but advocates fear what the repercussions of an outbreak at the facility could mean for local residents in the Valley. "Just that center by itself would completely overwhelm the healthcare facilities in all four counties. So, that's an added reason beyond the individuals and beyond the facility itself, for the greater public health that ICE should release these individuals immediately," said Olivarez.


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