Lawyers for Civil Rights Files Emergency Class Action Against ICE and Bristol County Sheriff

Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) are calling on the federal government to release all individuals currently held in immigration custody who do not have criminal convictions, citing concerns that detainees are not able to properly social distance and prevent the spread of COVID-19 within detention centers. On March 26, 2020, LCR filed an emergency class action against Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Bristol County Sheriff requesting immediate relief on behalf of a putative class of highly vulnerable civil immigration detainees who are at imminent risk of contracting COVID-19.

The complaint, which was filed in partnership with Yale Law School’s Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic and the Brazilian Worker Center, contains accounts of guards who report to work with coronavirus symptoms, and detained individuals who are still being brought into the facility without any medical testing or screening. The complaint alleges that Bristol County and ICE fail to provide sanitizer and disinfectant, subjecting immigrants to imminent infection, illness and death. LCR argues that ICE has significant discretion to release detained immigrants, and regularly uses alternatives to detention to maintain custody and control over non-citizens in immigration proceedings, such as supervised release, electronic ankle monitors, home confinement, and telephonic monitoring.

The lawsuit, filed as a complaint and petition for writ of habeas corpus, was brought against Bristol County Sheriff Hodgson; Bristol County House of Corrections Superintendent Steven Souza; Acting Director of ICE’s Boston Field Office Todd Lyons; Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf; and ICE Director Matthew Albence. The individuals named as Petitioners-Plaintiffs are Maria Alejandra, an immigrant who suffers from asthma, and Julio Cesar, an immigrant who suffers from extreme depression and anxiety which are being exacerbated by the imminent risk of contracting coronavirus.

According to Syracuse University’s TRAC Immigration Database, as of July 2019, there were 747 people detained in immigration jails in Massachusetts. Of those, nearly 60% had no criminal conviction.

The case was heard on April 2 and U.S. District Judge William G. Young said that he was inclined to start freeing some detainees because medical evidence suggests that reducing the population would “improve the chances” that others at the jail would not contract the virus. Judge Young, who urged the sides to try to negotiate an agreement, said anyone released would have to be symptom-free and be taken to a home or an apartment, where they would remain quarantined for 14 days, under house arrest.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Hodgson has said that he is adamantly opposed to releasing detainees on the issues being raised by the LCR lawyers. He said that ICE detainees are in a safer place, medically speaking, than they would be if released, since some may not have a home.

On Tuesday, April 7, Judge Young ordered the release of eight immigrants held by Sheriff Hodgson. According to court documents, Judge Young is considering the release of 10 detainees per day.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts has also called on ICE to release detainees amidst the risk of coronavirus infection. On March 25, they sued ICE on behalf of two immigrant detained in the Plymouth County Correctional Facility. Those two immigrants were released on March 27. In a statement, Matthew Segal, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said close quarters in prisons and other detention facilities raise health concerns on a regular basis and especially so during a time of pandemic. “The Trump administration’s immigration enforcement regime should not be sentencing people to potential exposure to a serious and potentially fatal disease,” Segal said. “Public officials have made clear that we must all follow social-distancing and risk-reduction guidance, and this is especially true—not less true—where detained or incarcerated people are concerned.”

-Lucia Caballero
Government Relations Assistant
Boston Bar Association