We have to get these medically vulnerable people out of ICE detention. Now.

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Photo credit: Border Rights Center

By Vanessa Stine

With each passing day of Pennsylvania’s reopening during the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s easier to believe that the worst of this public health crisis is behind us. The bustle of restaurants, bars, and retail shops seems to grow each day. Fewer people seem to be wearing masks out in public or practicing social distancing.

But the hard truth is that the virus hasn’t gone anywhere and continues to surge in many parts of the country.

Over the past months, there has been wide reporting about the spread of the virus in places where social distancing is nearly impossible, like nursing homes and meatpacking plants. But in recent weeks, as some jails and prisons have started to ramp up testing for the virus, five detention centers have emerged as the biggest concentration of infections in the nation.

For people in civil immigration detention in Pennsylvania, the situation is particularly dire. There is little to no testing, so the spread of the virus continues with little documentation, until people show symptoms, get sick, or die. The nature of these detention centers prevent those in detention from practicing social distancing. Instead, they are packed into dorms of 50 to 70 people, or in small, cramped cells. People regularly run out of basic items like soap and are forced to reuse flimsy cloth masks for weeks on end.

For people with underlying health conditions, or for people who are older, they face a significant and ongoing risk from continuing to be detained for civil immigration purposes. A recent study found that those who contract COVID-19 and have underlying health conditions are twelve times more likely to die than patients without underlying health conditions.

That’s why the ACLU of Pennsylvania is in federal court this week, arguing for a classwide injunction that would immediately release from ICE custody medically vulnerable people from immigration detention in Clinton, Pike, and York counties.

This class action is the outgrowth of two previous lawsuits filed during the pandemic to secure the release of medically vulnerable people, Hope, et al., v. Doll, et al. and Thakker, et al., v. Doll, et al.

While ICE continues to tout its policies as sufficient, the rising number of cases across the country show otherwise — in just the past month, the number of positive cases in ICE facilities rose by 367%. From April 21 to May 19, 2020, cases increased by 30% to 68% each week. ICE has been saying for weeks that it has a plan to do all of the above but so far has offered no evidence that these life-or-death precautions are being honored.

For instance, ICE claims that in its York and Clinton county detention centers, there is a low number of confirmed cases, so there can’t be a significant outbreak there. But ICE also isn’t testing in those facilities. This is an argument akin to that of the President, who maintains that recent surges in Coronavirus cases are merely the result of increased testing. It’s a circular, meaningless assertion.

ICE’s documentation of contact tracing in its York facility amounted to a one-page written schedule of a staff member who had tested positive for the virus.

In ICE’s Pike County detention center, an outbreak of COVID-19 has already devastated the facility — already there have been 51 confirmed cases among people in detention and 25 staff members. At least two people detained there have died of the virus.

Conditions in ICE’s York and Clinton county detention centers are no better than the Pike facility; an outbreak in both is imminent if proper steps aren’t taken to provide more personal protective equipment, allow for social distancing, especially in sleeping and bathroom areas, and implement comprehensive testing and contact tracing.

Given that lives are at stake, and that ICE has effective alternatives to detention tools at their disposal, it is particularly cruel for ICE to keep medically vulnerable people locked up. Yet ICE has been relentless in working to keep people locked up, even those for which incarceration means mortal danger during the pandemic. People in this high-risk group have a 15% chance of dying, which is a little better than one in six. Most of us don’t believe Russian Roulette is a safe game.

But the ACLU of Pennsylvania isn’t about to back down.

We won’t stop until our clients are free, and we will continue to support and help to advance work to defund ICE. Lives depend on it.

Stay tuned for updates on this class action soon.

Vanessa Stine is the Immigrants’ Rights Attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

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