Lawsuit: ICE family detention in Pa. is a ‘tinderbox’ due to COVID-19

According to immigration attorneys, conditions in family detention centers create “a crisis that threatens the lives of women, men and children.”

Berks County Residential Center. Oct. 6, 2016. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

Berks County Residential Center. Oct. 6, 2016. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

A lawsuit has been filed in federal court on behalf of 56 immigrant families held in detention centers in Pennsylvania and Texas, alleging they are “recklessly exposing” children and their parents to the coronavirus.

The suit urges a federal judge to compel their release. Advocates say the families — held for either civil charges or awaiting asylum decisions — could be monitored remotely, as is already the case for many immigrants.

“Respondents have failed to protect one of the most vulnerable populations in their charge: noncitizen asylum-seeking families in family detention,” write lawyers with ALDEA (People’s Justice Center) and the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. There are thousands of people in these centers in Karnes and Dilley, Texas, and 16 families in the Berks Family Residential Center, outside Reading, Pa., according to advocates.

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The reality of living in close, confined quarters, often with multiple families sharing rooms and an alleged lack of additional cleaning or sanitary precautions create “a tinderbox that, once sparked, will create a crisis that threatens the lives of women, men and children,” write the attorneys.

A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that the agency would not comment on pending litigation, but that it has stopped accepting new families at the Berks facility. ICE has also released some guidance about the steps it has taken to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19 to people in its custody.

This lawsuit follows another one filed in Washington State, where the ACLU has requested the release of ICE detainees, and a hunger strike in Newark, New Jersey.

Even under normal circumstances, it’s not uncommon for families transferred into ICE detention to be sick, often due to conditions on the trek to the United States or while waiting in Mexico to enter.

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“Most of the people there have coughs,” said Jackie Kline, an attorney with ALDEA, who called it “surreal” that immigration detention continues, as do hearings for detained clients, as other courts are shutting down.

“The deportation machine has not stopped … and so it then forces all of these other segments, lawyers, judges, whatever to be put at risk,” she said.

The lawsuit alleges that current conditions violate the Fifth Amendment, the Administrative Procedures Act, and a legal settlement called Flores that protects the health and safety of minors in immigration custody. It requests the immediate release of families and the prevention of new families from entering.

It also points to a new precedent for reevaluating who really needs to be detained, citing a report that the Berks County Jail has already released 50-60 non-violent offenders who had already served a minimum sentence as a preventative measure.

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