Eighteen medically vulnerable immigrants, some of whom have spent most of their lives in the United States, could be re-arrested and sent to Pennsylvania jails while the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage, according to their attorneys.
Last spring, a federal judge ordered U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release dozens of detainees with conditions like asthma and diabetes, which could make a COVID-19 infection life-threatening. This allowed them to fight their immigration cases, which involve civil and not criminal law, outside of detention.
The plaintiffs could be locked up again if the government, led by a new presidential administration, doesn’t change its position, their attorneys say.
“Re-detention for people who are medically vulnerable would violate their constitutional rights … because you would be subjecting people to conditions that could kill them,” said Vanessa Stine, immigration attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, one of many people working on the cases.
Though the Biden administration issued some sweeping changes to immigration policies in its first few weeks, smaller, local decisions like this are where policy is converted to action.
What the federal government is saying, and what the local ICE office is doing, “it’s two different realities,” said Stine.
A memo signed by the acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary created new priorities for who should, or should not, be in detention. Priorities for arrest include people who pose a threat to national security, border security, or public safety, categories the plaintiffs’ attorneys say do not describe their clients.
When asked about this guidance and the ongoing lawsuits, a spokesperson for the federal government sent this statement: “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not comment on pending litigation.”
The statement went on to reiterate the priorities in the memo, but added, “DHS does not prohibit ICE from apprehending or detaining individuals who are unlawfully in the United States and fall outside of these specific priorities.”
In both court cases, attorneys for the federal government have argued that it should be able to return the plaintiffs to county correctional facilities, where immigrants are held together with people serving time for criminal offenses.
The plaintiffs were held at York County Prison, Pike County Correctional Facility, and Clinton County Correctional Facility. The original complaints, known as Thakker v. Doll and Hope v. Doll, were filed in March and April 2020, as the coronavirus took hold in the U.S. They covered 35 people with an assortment of medical issues, and detailed allegations of cramped conditions, as well as inadequate protective equipment and cleaning supplies in the jails where they were.
Detaining immigrants while they go through yearslong court cases, or await deportation, occurred under both the Trump and Obama administrations. The spread of COVID-19 in group settings, like prisons and detention centers, has amplified calls to change this practice from activists and hunger strikes by detainees.
ICE has argued that in the cases that detention is justified because the remaining plaintiffs all have had previous contact with police.
Jesus Angel Juarez Pantoja, 37, has been in the United States since he was six years old. On two occasions, he was arrested for having less than an ounce of marijuana, known as a small amount/personal use charge. What is normally a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail, in his case, triggered Juarez Pantoja’s deportation to Mexico in 2019. He left behind his wife and three U.S. citizen kids.
“My little girl tried committing suicide due to the fact that I wasn’t here,” he said. Juarez Pantoja returned to the U.S, and a month later he said his probation officer reported him to ICE for coming back to this country without permission.
After six months in York County Prison, his attorneys successfully argued that due to his health, he could not be detained safely during the coronavirus pandemic, and a judge ordered his release. Juarez Pantoja has obesity, asthma, sleep apnea, and hypertension, infirmities that make contracting the coronavirus even more dangerous for him.
Juarez Pantoja, who lives in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, said since his release, he has been taking care of his family. His daughter requested he be the one to take her to school for the two days a week her hybrid courses are in session, he said.
“I’m a human being, nobody is perfect. There’s got to be a way for the law to see that I’m, I’m not a threat to the country,” he said. “I’ve been here my whole life and I’m treated like a hardcore criminal,” he added.
Of the 35 people named in the initial lawsuits, some won their cases, while others were released by ICE willingly and are not subject to re-detention. Some were deported. A couple of people were ordered to return to detention, and didn’t comply, and are no longer a part of the lawsuits. Eighteen people remain a part of the litigation.
Wilders Paul, 33, said he is scrupulously following the guidelines of his release, which initially involved wearing an ankle monitor, and now means checking in with his ACLU attorney regularly.
A U.S. resident since the age of three, Paul suffered a motorcycle accident a few years ago that left him prone to seizures. Of going back to ICE detention, he said, “I feel super terrified.”
Originally from Haiti, Paul said he dropped out of high school to take care of his family when his dad became sick. As a young man, he said he made some mistakes, including a misdemeanor marijuana charge from when he was 19 years old. Mostly recently, he came into contact with law enforcement after he called 911, and officers discovered he was behind on child support. His family paid what he owed, but he was still transferred to ICE custody.
After his release from ICE detention, Paul has been taking care of his mother, who is a U.S. citizen, and waiting for a hearing on his green card application.
He said he is frustrated to be treated differently than a U.S. citizen would, despite his many years in this country.
“Don’t look at where I was born. Look at what I’ve been doing since I have been free,” Paul said.
Get more Pennsylvania stories that matter