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Lawsuits & Litigation

Lawsuit: Irresponsible ICE Transfers Gave Coronavirus to Dozens of Prairieland Detainees

— May 22, 2020

The lawsuit claims that ICE knowingly moved COVID-19-infected detainees to Prairieland, which experienced a coronavirus outbreak shortly afterward.

Eleven detainees have filed a lawsuit against ICE’s Prairieland Detention Center, claiming immigration officials have not done enough to curb the spread of coronavirus behind bars.

The Dallas Morning News reports that the lawsuit, filed late last week, requests that the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency release several Prairieland detainees who are at especially high risk for contracting a serious form of coronavirus. The plaintiffs represented in the complaint come from a wide variety of countries, including Mexico, Nicaragua, and the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan.

The lawsuit, adds the Morning News, is one of several dozen efforts seeking the release of ICE detainees across the United States. Immigration advocates and attorneys alike have repeatedly petitioned the government to trim detainee populations, arguing that detention centers—like jails and prisons—facilitate the rapid spread of infectious disease.

“We have always thought that outbreaks were exactly what would happen,” said Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services attorney Felix Villalobos. “That is why there have been lawsuits around the country. ICE isn’t really good about taking care of people’s medical needs.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer. Image via US-ICE/Flickr. Public domain.

And Prairieland, rather unfortunately, has already shown how ICE policies expedite the spread of coronavirus.

According to the Dallas Morning News, Immigration and Customs Enforcement transferred about two dozen detainees from a Pennsylvania jail to Prairieland. The Pennsylvania facility had already experienced a coronavirus outbreak.

Several days after the Pennsylvania detainees arrived, Prairieland inmates, too, began testing positive for coronavirus.

“The consequences of this decision are exactly as expected: Prairieland Detention Center quickly went from zero confirmed cases of COVID-19 to at least 45,” the lawsuit states.

To that end, the lawsuit accuses ICE of transporting coronavirus-infected inmates across the country, all without regard for public health and without taking reasonable safety precautions.

Fatma Marouf, the director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Texas A&M School of Law, said the lawsuit’s primary objective is winning release for detainees who are elevated risk of dying or contracting a serious form of coronavirus.

Similarly, Texas A&M adjunct professor Sehla Ashai said that “an immigration sentence shouldn’t be a death sentence.”

While Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to provide comment to the Dallas Morning News, the agency seemed to indicate it will contest the plaintiffs’ allegations.

“Lack of comment,” ICE said, “should not be construed as agreement with or stipulation to any of the allegations.”

One way or another, it may be difficult for detainees to find a sympathetic ear in the courts. Dan Gividen, former chief counsel for ICE’s office in Dallas, said it will be difficult for attorneys to get a temporary restraining order from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“In this circuit, [federal judges] are more likely to agree that they don’t have jurisdiction than other circuits, like the 9th,” Gividen told the Morning News.

But even Gividen is critical of how ICE appears to have handled the pandemic.

“Everybody knew what was going on with the coronavirus,” he said. “Everyone knew detention centers are places it spreads like wildfire.”


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Kyrgyzstani infected with COVID-19 in US prison files lawsuit

Prairieland detainees file class-action lawsuit against ICE related to coronavirus cases in facility

Virus began spreading in Texas detention center as positive immigrants were quickly transferred in from Northeast

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