Detained Immigrants Turn To The Courts To Protect Themselves From COVID-19

ICE protest car COVID-19 April 2020
A car displays signs during a protest earlier this month calling for the release of detained immigrants with underlying conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, there are 220 confirmed COVID-19 cases in 28 immigrant detention facilities across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Provided courtesy of Organized Communities Against Deportations
ICE protest car COVID-19 April 2020
A car displays signs during a protest earlier this month calling for the release of detained immigrants with underlying conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, there are 220 confirmed COVID-19 cases in 28 immigrant detention facilities across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Provided courtesy of Organized Communities Against Deportations

Detained Immigrants Turn To The Courts To Protect Themselves From COVID-19

With a growing number of COVID-19 cases at immigrant detention centers across the country, advocates have turned to the courts to protect vulnerable immigrants at such facilities in Illinois.

In the last few weeks, the National Immigrant Justice Center has filed six lawsuits to release detained immigrants who have preexisting conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure that can turn COVID-19 deadly. The ACLU of Illinois has also filed litigation to release two immigrants.

The jails in three Illinois counties — Kankakee, McHenry and Pulaski counties — have contracts with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to house immigrants facing deportation. Each facility has capacity for up to 150 immigrants.

Pulaski County Detention Center has already reported confirmed COVID-19 cases for six immigrant detainees and one guard. The detention center houses about 130 immigrants facing deportation. So far, there are 220 confirmed COVID-19 cases in 28 facilities across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

And that’s why advocates have been trying to identify immigrants with preexisting conditions to file lawsuits and demand that immigration officials release them. And others have started campaigns asking Gov. JB Prizker to meet with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of Homeland Security, and ask them to release immigrants.

“Gov. Pritzker can use his bully pulpit to raise concerns about people who are incarcerated or detained during the current pandemic,” said Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “But the decision to release is ultimately up to ICE. It’s a matter of federal law.”

The ACLU of Illinois filed a lawsuit on Friday demanding federal officials release two immigrants from the McHenry County jail because they have high blood pressure and diabetes. Within days, one of the plaintiffs was released.

“The McHenry County Jail is a vector of coronavirus infection because it is crowded and unsanitary rendering it impossible to follow the recommendations that the CDC has outlined to protect people in these facilities,” said Nusrat Choudhury, legal director for the ACLU of Illinois.

One of the plaintiffs is Souleymane Dembele, a 43-year-old from Mali, Africa. He’s pre-diabetic and has high blood pressure. He’s challenging the denial of his political asylum claim. He’s married to a legal permanent resident and is the father of three U.S.-born children. He has no criminal record. He had been at the McHenry County Jail for six weeks, according to the lawsuit.

Dembele was released Tuesday evening.

“ICE clearly is not doing enough to ensure that immigration detention does not amount to a death sentence for vulnerable people. Immigration detention continues to unnecessarily put immigrants, facility staff, and the surrounding community at risk,” Choudhury said.

The other plaintiff in the case is Muhammad Taufiq Butt is a 65-year-old immigrant from Pakistan. He’s been detained for three months. The Skokie resident has been living in the country for 22 years. He is diabetic, and has hyperlipidemia, hypertension and sleep apnea. Butt was scheduled to be deported in March after a judge denied him an asylum claim. Butt's son is waiting for his naturalization to become a U.S. citizen, which was delayed due to COVID-19. As a citizen, he could apply to adjust his father's immigration status.

“Mr. Butt shares his tiny cell with a man who coughs all night,” according to the lawsuit. “Based on the inability to practice CDC-recommended social distancing and hygiene practices and the unhygienic feeding and bathrooms situations, Petitioners’ experts testify that the conditions greatly heighten likelihood of contagion, putting Petitioners at grave risk of serious illness and death.”

The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) has also been successful at using the courts to win the release of vulnerable immigrants from detention. In all, the nonprofit has filed six lawsuits in Illinois.

Earlier this month, NIJC successfully argued for the release of three immigrants from the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee County. They include Juan Manuel Hernandez, a 46-year-old immigrant with diabetes, high blood pressure, breathing problems and who has had a heart attack. He had been detained for eight months because he couldn’t afford a $2,000 bond. He’s lived in the state for 30 years.

Delome Johannes Favi, a 32-year-old father of three with high blood pressure and respiratory problems, was also released from the Kankakee County facility. He was detained for nine months. Favi is waiting to adjust his status through his wife, who is a legal permanent resident. He had a March appointment with immigration officials that was postponed when the office closed because of the pandemic.

The third immigrant released is an 18-year-old asylum seeker who came to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor and who was transferred to an adult detention facility on his 18th birthday. He suffers from PTSD, which has worsened because of prolonged detention.

NIJC’s petitions for two other immigrants were denied. Those cases involved a 27-year-old immigrant from France, detained inside the McHenry County Jail since March, who has lived in the U.S. since 2008 and suffers from PTSD and asthma. The other immigrant is a 31-year-old transgender man, who immigrated to the U.S. 10 year ago seeking asylum, detained in the Pulaski County Detention Center.

On Wednesday, NIJC filed suit on behalf of Alfredo Chavez Garcia, a 49-year-old widowed father of six who’s lived in the country for 40 years. Chavez Garcia has been at the Pulaski County Jail for nearly one year. He has diabetes and high blood pressure.

But the Chicago-based community organization Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD) says these efforts are not enough to protect every immigrant currently housed inside a detention center.

OCAD has launched a campaign demanding the mass release of all detainees inside immigrant detention centers. The group shared a letter with 60 community organizations asking Pritzker to pressure federal officials to release immigrants.

“OCAD is also keeping the pressure on the local ICE director encouraging the general public to send direct emails to the Chicago Field Office and making calls to Illinois sheriffs asking the departments to stop honoring contracts with ICE,” said Rey Wences, an organizer with OCAD.

Wences added that his group joined other organizations in a caravan at Cook County Jail, ICE headquarters and the juvenile detention center to call for the release of people from these sites and others across the country. OCAD also organized a campaign to release Carlos Yanez, an immigrant from Chicago currently being held at a Wisconsin detention facility.

As of April 11, there were more than 32,000 immigrants in custody — with nearly 60% of them never having been convicted of a crime, according to an analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a group at Syracuse University.

María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the length of time a 27-year-old immigrant has spent inside the McHenry County Jail. We apologize for the error.