by Vanessa Stine, Muneeba Talukder, and Erika Nyborg-Burch
Back in April, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of 22 people who were being detained by ICE in two county jails in Pennsylvania. The lawsuit urged the release of the plaintiffs, who all face serious health risks or worse if they contract COVID-19 because of their age, their underlying health conditions, or both.
We won that case. On April 10, 2020, our clients were released to their homes, their families, and their communities.
But in August, an appeals court vacated the decision, meaning that we must return to the district court. With COVID-19 raging across the state, we asked ICE to agree not to arrest and re-detain our clients before our scheduled court conference later this week. Yet ICE’s cruelty knows no bounds: they refused to agree to even this short respite for our medically-vulnerable clients. So we were forced to seek emergency relief from the court.
Re-detention would be exceptionally dangerous — and also unconstitutional. The pandemic has reached a grim milestone here in the U.S.: there are over 10 million cases. And congregate settings like jails and prisons pose a heightened risk of contagion. Our clients have been sheltering at home in their communities for the last seven months. They have been complying with all conditions of release, which include weekly check-ins with their attorneys and, for some, electronic monitoring and regular ICE check-ins. We are asking that they be allowed to remain with their families until the court can address whether their continued detention violates the U.S. Constitution.
Here are the stories of some of the medically vulnerable people who ICE wants to re-detain:
Duckens is a lawful permanent resident who has lived in the United States most of his life. He spent six months in immigration detention before his release awaiting a hearing on his application for immigration relief. Since his release, he’s returned to his mother’s home, where he’s been helping her with housework, spending time with his sister’s two children, and returning to his love of cooking. He hopes to complete certification to do electrical work when the pandemic is over. Duckens, who is obsese, has high blood pressure and arthritis and was unable to practice social distancing or even adequately wash his hands in jail. He heard stories of sick guards and feared that each time he got close to another person he would get sick. Duckens just wants to stay with his family.
Nahom came to the United States from war-torn Eritrea in the 1990s after his father won the diversity visa lottery. Nahom quickly excelled in school but also started to experience debilitating chronic pain. After being hospitalized for a month, then-15-year-old Nahom was diagnosed with a rare form of Crohn’s disease, for which he has had to take many medications to manage his pain. Still, he worked to attend college because he really enjoyed his studies. Since being released, Nahom has become the primary caretaker for his elderly and infirm parents. He has also been able to manage his physical pain. Nahom is terrified of being detained again due to his Crohn’s disease.
Aaron came to the United States when he was nine-years-old, seeking refuge from dangerous circumstances in Trinidad. He quickly adapted to his new life and found a deep love for swimming, serving as a lifeguard for many years at a Coney Island beach. He graduated from Queens College with a psychology degree and met the love of his life, who he married while still in immigration detention. Since his release from immigration detention, Aaron has focused on caring for his wife and his mother, both of whom suffer from serious health issues. He and his family attend virtual church together. He has started a marketing job and just wants a chance to continue to build his life and focus on his family and their collective health.
Jesus came to the United States from Mexico when he was six-years-old and has lived in this country for more than thirty years. Jesus is a devoted husband and a loving father to his children. An immigration judge granted Jesus cancellation of removal based on the hardship his deportation would cause to his family. While this status would allow him to remain in the U.S. with his family, ICE kept him detained while they appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals. Right after he was released from ICE custody in April, Jesus got very sick and then tested positive for COVID-19. With his wife’s care and medical attention, he made a full recovery. Jesus is not sure if he would have survived COVID had he remained in jail. At home, he was able to celebrate his daughter’s eleventh birthday, which was especially important for Jesus because he had been in detention for her tenth birthday. He has also been able to help care for his children while his wife works at night. Since Jesus has returned home, the Board of Immigration Appeals affirmed the immigration judge’s decision in his favor, but ICE continues to fight to take away immigration relief. Jesus is hopeful that ICE will not put his family through the trauma of another detention.
These are just a few of the stories of people trying to rebuild their lives, even as ICE threatens to tear it all away. ICE presents one-dimensional narratives about our clients that focus solely on their past contacts with the criminal legal system. But our clients are much more than a docket sheet — they are people who have fled their war-torn countries in hopes of a better life, they are spouses, children, parents, and grandparents whose families rely on them, they include people who have lived in this country for almost their entire lives, people who have changed their lives after past mistakes (some from decades ago), and many are from Black and brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted by over-policing. They are among the millions of families that are impacted by our broken immigration system every day.
Now, more than ever, immigration detention is a matter of life and death. ICE must stop tearing families apart and putting people at risk of sickness and death. Our country is at a moment of reckoning. We know that it will take years to undo the damage of this administration. We can start by reining in ICE.
Vanessa Stine is an Immigrants’ Rights Attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
Erika Nyborg-Burch is a Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
Muneeba Talukder is an Immigrants’ Rights Legal Fellow for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.