ICE detainees in N.J. ask courts for release as coronavirus spreads

Posted Mar 24, 2020

Attorneys are pushing in court to have U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees released from correctional facilities in New York and New Jersey to protect them from the coronavirus.

Different legal groups and individual attorneys have separately asked judges in New York and New Jersey federal courts to immediately release their clients, pointing to corrections officers and an ICE detainee who recently tested positive for the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The Legal Aid Society and The Bronx Defenders, legal groups based in New York, filed suit last week to release seven ICE detainees who are at “imminent risk” of COVID-19 because of their age or underlying health conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure and lung issues.

Three of the detainees are being held in Bergen County jail, two in Hudson, one in Essex and another in New York. Those counties have contracts with ICE each worth millions to hold the agency’s detainees.

“Rather than alleviating the growing public health crisis, ICE has opted to recklessly endanger our clients as the risk of COVID-19 spread in their jails continues to grow,” said Suchita Mathur, an attorney on The Bronx Defenders’ immigration team. “Every day ICE’s failure to act in a reasonable manner, as recommended by public health experts around the world, brings us closer and closer to disaster.”

Should a federal judge grant their release, it could set a precedent for other ICE detainees who have underlying conditions, a spokeswoman for the Bronx Defenders said.

ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations said it could not comment on the pending litigation. ICE has temporarily suspended social visitation at all detention facilities to stop the spread of the illness, according to the agency’s website.

Coronavirus has already impacted jails in New Jersey.

Inmates in Bergen, Hudson and Essex county jails have tested positive for the illness. Only the inmate at Bergen County was confirmed to be an ICE detainee.

The illness has also affected corrections officers. A superior officer at the Essex County jail was diagnosed with COVID-19 this week and so was a corrections officer at the Bergen County jail.

Individual attorneys have also made separate requests to federal judges asking for ICE detainees they represent to be released for a variety of reasons.

Craig Relles, a New York-based attorney, said he has made requests to ICE for 40 immigration detainees to be released due to the coronavirus outbreak, which has shuttered all the immigration courts in New Jersey and Manhattan, meaning detainees have limited due process rights.

One of Relles’ clients, Yacouba Traore, a Mali native, has been detained in Bergen County Jail since December 2017 after being in the country for 15 years.

In a letter filed to U.S. District Judge Esther Salas Tuesday, Relles’ law firm said Traore, who was living in Manhattan when he was detained, should be released because his criminal history is limited and his release would “alleviate the congestion which makes the inmate population so susceptible to the virus.”

Relles said in an interview Tuesday that since a Bergen County Jail correctional officer tested positive for COVID-19 last week, his client was moved from the dorm, where immigration detainees are typically held, to a cell. Relles said his client has said the cell is unsanitary and has no hot water, the toilet is backed up with feces and it is “freezing cold.”

“The warning lights are flashing here,” Relles said. “My immigration clients are just sitting there. It is dangerous.”

Attorneys for Ousman Darboe, a Gambia native who has been detained in Bergen County Jail since July 2017, have spent the last few months petitioning for his release. Their efforts heated up in February when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo pardoned Darboe on a 2014 unarmed robbery conviction, which is the primary justification for Darboe’s continuing civil immigration detention.

Now Darboe’s attorneys are pleading for his release amid the coronavirus pandemic, and the potential outbreak in the county jail, where a mumps outbreak occurred last summer.

His attorneys called the jail “ill-equipped” to keep detainees safe from the disease, according to a letter recently filed to U.S. District Court Judge John Michael Vazquez.

In the letter, attorney Matthew A. Johnson wrote that Darboe’s prolonged detention is already unconstitutional, but with the threat of coronavirus, these are “extraordinary circumstances” under which he should be released.

The letter says a ruling on whether Darboe, who was living in the Bronx when he was detained, should be deported may not come until 2021 or later.

“To require Mr. Darboe to sit in detention—during a global pandemic—for another two months when we know today he will not be deported before that time, is a violation of his due process rights,” the letter says.

The letter says the court is in possession of numerous letters of support from family members, multiple reentry programs and six members of Congress in the New York Delegation attesting to Darboe’s character and recommending his release.

There has been growing outcry from activists to release immigrant detainees in ICE custody in New Jersey.

The American Civil Liberties Union-New Jersey and dozens of other immigrant rights groups called on ICE last week to suspend deportations and enforcement activity throughout the state because of the virus. The groups’ letter was copied to Gov. Phil Murphy and both U.S. senators that represent New Jersey.

The New Jersey Supreme Court issued an emergency order on Sunday that releases inmates serving jail time as a result of probation sentences or municipal convictions. The order impacts hundreds of inmates at county jails, but did not affect ICE detainees.

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment