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U.S. judge orders ICE to say how many detained migrants are being released under expanded coronavirus medical reviews

Migrants in an ICE detention facility in Louisiana are seeking release, fearing the spread of coronavirus. (Reuters)

U.S. immigration officials must disclose the number of releases they have granted or denied from detention centers in five southern states to migrants considered at higher risk of dying from coronavirus.

The order from U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg came during a hearing Thursday — days after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement expanded the categories of detainees who should be considered for release beyond pregnant women and those over age 70.

On Saturday, ICE directed field offices nationwide to reassess custody of anyone over 60, as well as those of any age with chronic illnesses compromising their immune systems.

“What I’m looking for is, is it in fact happening on the ground?” Boasberg told lawyers for ICE at an emergency hearing in U.S. District Court in Washington in a lawsuit brought by immigrant advocates seeking release of asylum seekers detained in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Boasberg, who ordered the numbers released by April 30, said ICE’s shift may “go a long way” toward releasing the most vulnerable detainees.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeremy S. Simon said ICE will determine if it can release the information. He said ICE also retains full discretion over the outcome of reviews, saying “none of the [listed] factors are determinative” of release, with public safety a high priority.

ICE’s nonbinding guidance came as counties and states are releasing thousands of inmates from prisons and jails fearing outbreaks of coronavirus in confined quarters. Corrections and detention authorities are grappling with public health warnings and demands from judges and prisoner advocates to free nonviolent offenders, pretrial defendants and immigrant detainees who are not charged with crimes and pose low risk of flight.

‘It’s a time bomb’: ICE detainees seek release amid growing coronavirus fears

Louisiana is a national hot spot for the coronavirus, reporting the third-highest per capita death rate among states after New York and New Jersey. Louisiana is also the site of the deadliest outbreak in a federal prison, with its rural Oakdale facility housing five of the eight inmates who have died nationwide under U.S. Bureau of Prisons custody.

As of Thursday, 35 people in ICE custody, including two in facilities in Louisiana, and 71 staffers had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. ICE detained about 35,600 people in more than 130 private and state-run facilities across the country as of March 28.

The hearing Thursday came over an emergency motion filed March 31 by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana in a lawsuit challenging ICE’s detention of migrants whose asylum claims are pending.

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Boasberg ruled in September that while the lawsuit proceeds, ICE’s New Orleans field office must cease denying nearly 100 percent of parole release requests from asylum applicants. In the lawsuit, originally filed May 30, plaintiffs showed that the office’s denial rate for such detainees had grown from 24.5 percent in 2016, to 82 percent in 2017, 98.5 percent in 2018 and 100 percent in 2019 by the time of Boasberg’s order.

In the new motion, the center and the ACLU asked Boasberg to order ICE to review all parole decisions from asylum applicants in the five states under the office’s jurisdiction because of the threat of covid-19.

“Seeking asylum is a fundamental, internationally recognized human right, but shamefully, our government has relegated asylum seekers to prisons that amount to death traps as the pandemic spreads,” SPLC staff attorney Mich Gonzalez said.

ACLU of Louisiana staff attorney Bruce Hamilton called ICE medical conditions “horrific and dysfunctional.” He described medical care as limited to ibuprofen. He also asserted that detention center operations do not permit detainees or employees to keep six feet apart when residents sleep, eat or engage in recreation, and that occupants face shortages of soap and cleaning supplies.

ICE has said migrants with the virus have been quarantined and are receiving care, and those exposed to them are being monitored for symptoms. It also has advised facilities to “maximize social distancing as much as practicable” by staggering meal times and recreation activities.

ICE guidance also calls for detainees to be given soap for showers, hand soap for sinks, and “alcohol-based sanitizer in visitor entrances, exits, waiting areas and to staff and detainees in the secure setting whenever possible.”

Simon said parole grant rates are “approaching 40 percent” at some site, and ICE has already been releasing detainees with heart disease, hypertension, hepatitis C or testing positive for HIV.

ICE to stop most immigration enforcement inside U.S., will focus on criminals during coronavirus outbreak

U.S. law has generally allowed anyone who set foot on U.S. soil to apply for asylum. However, tens of thousands of immigrants requesting relief from political persecution, torture or abuse in their native countries have been required to cross back to Mexico to await asylum hearings since last year under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

Tens of thousands of people seeking asylum who are allowed to stay in the United States are held as civil and not criminal detainees while awaiting hearings before backlogged immigration courts.

The lawsuit argues that U.S. authorities are failing to meet constitutional requirements to house migrant prisoners in safe and sanitary conditions.

In the lawsuit, many asylum seekers, such as a Venezuelan dissident detained in Louisiana, argue they pose no public threat or burden and already know potential sponsors in the United States with whom they could live and self-quarantine.

Meanwhile, another petitioner, a Cuban woman, said her dorm was recently combined with that of women under quarantine for the H1N1 influenza. She alleged the other women were not allowed to bathe for three days, were sometimes denied water and were not provided food consistently.

“The women also confirmed that their sheets and clothes were not washed during the quarantine, and they were not allowed to wear their undergarments,” the woman alleged. “They also said doctors never came to check on them while under quarantine, and not once did any officers come to clean the dorm during the quarantine. They look so sickly.”

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