But as he continued to weigh a request to release families held in ICE detention facilities amid the coronavirus emergency, he ordered the agency to disclose by April 22 how many it has tested and how it decides who gets tested. The judge also asked ICE to detail its stocks of breathing masks and other protective equipment, medical capabilities, treatment plans and coordination with local health authorities.
“I don’t think . . . you’ve made the showing that [bulk] release is necessary at this point,” Boasberg told attorneys for three groups helping migrant families seeking asylum. “But what I am interested in is . . . particular categories of information that you seek, and I think requiring the government to provide that information would both benefit this litigation, but would also benefit your clients.”
The judge’s action came as ICE announced that no detainee at the three centers — one in Pennsylvania in Berks County and two in Texas in Dilley and Karnes City — has tested positive for the virus. The agency said populations have fallen from 51 percent to 36 percent of capacity at Karnes City; 21 percent to 18 percent at Berks County; and 23 percent to 19 percent at Dilley.
Vanessa Molina, attorney with the Justice Department’s Office of Immigration Litigation, said the Berks facility is no longer admitting detainees, and the other two have accepted 76 new residents. Those whom ICE could not confirm have shown no symptoms in the past 14 days were put in quarantine.
While the agency is not releasing those deemed as flight risks or awaiting imminent deportation, “ICE is actively conducting assessments . . . and that is reflected in the decrease of the numbers we have submitted,” Molina said in a 45-minute teleconference hearing.
Lawyers for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, the Rapid Defense Network, and ALDEA — the People’s Justice Center filed the class-action suit on March 31 arguing their clients are “trapped and at risk of serious, irreparable harm” in conditions they called “a tinderbox” for disease spread because the facilities cannot meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards for hygiene and social distancing.
The case tracks broader litigation before U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee in California seeking the emergency release of 6,900 detained children, including unaccompanied minors held at other facilities. Gee had ordered the release of about 3,000 children in states with higher coronavirus infection rates, which the government said that it is attempting to do but that it must first find suitable custodians.
As of Monday, 72 detainees and 19 detention-center agency employees have tested positive for the virus, including unaccompanied minors in detention, ICE said. ICE has directed field offices to review whether detainees over the age of 60 or with certain health conditions that put them at higher risk of infection could be released.
Families make up a small fraction of detainees, a population that has dropped to about 34,000 nationwide, according to last publicly reported figures April 4, the lowest number since 2016.
Although asylum seekers are held as civil detainees and are not in criminal custody, immigrant advocates say the facilities are effectively jails that hold children as young as infants with their parents, with subpar medical care provided. Hundreds of families are exhibiting symptoms including coughs, fever and shortness of breath but are not being tested or receiving adequate medicine, the suit alleged.
The Trump administration has also carried out nearly 10,000 summary deportations or “expulsions” since March 21, using emergency public health measures during the coronavirus outbreak that have given U.S. Customs and Border Protection broad authority to bypass immigration laws. The summary deportations have also reduced the entry and detained population of asylum seekers.
CBP has fewer than 100 detainees in custody, down from nearly 20,000 at this time last year during the border crisis, officials said last week.