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ICE agrees to free 6 women who sued for release over COVID-19 fears

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Six women will be freed from an El Paso immigration detention facility on Wednesday, five days after they alleged that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was putting them in danger to COVID-19

The six detainees filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on Friday, seeking their release from ICE detention because of underlying health conditions that put them at risk of complications from the novel coronavirus. 

U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo had scheduled a hearing on the request for Tuesday but it was cancelled because ICE and the women’s attorneys were negotiating a settlement, which resulted in plans to release them Wednesday afternoon.

“We received a call from the U.S. attorney’s office half an hour before the hearing, and were informed that they were inclined to try to reach a settlement so that these women could be released in a safe manner. And we spent the next four hours after that figuring out what the terms of that release would look like,” said Chris Benoit, one of the attorneys for the women.

Ruben Garcia of Annunciation House showed personal protective equipment that will be used as the nonprofit cares for six women released from ICE custody. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

He said his clients were “extremely, extremely relieved and happy. They are truly scared of the situation where they are.”

ICE declined to comment.

Seven detainees and one employee at ICE’s El Paso Processing Center have tested positive for COVID-19, the agency has said. Nationwide, ICE reports 425 detainees and 36 employees have tested positive in its detention facilities as of Tuesday. ICE does not provide counts of positive tests among contract workers, who often make up the bulk of the workforce at the detention facilities.

Annunciation House providing shelter to released women

Immediately after release, the women will stay at a shelter run by Annunciation House, an El Paso nonprofit organization that has assisted migrants for more than 40 years. They will be tested for COVID-19 and will be quarantined for 14 days or until cleared by medical personnel to leave to join sponsors elsewhere in the country, Benoit said.

They have agreed to abide by “alternatives to detention” conditions set by ICE, which sometimes includes wearing an ankle monitor.

One of the women in the lawsuit tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday. One has previously tested negative and the other four were not tested by ICE, Benoit said. The women range in age from 25 to 60.

Ruben Garcia, the founder of Annunciation House, said the women will be brought to the shelter after being tested for COVID-19 by El Paso public health officials. They will be cared for by three volunteers at the shelter and anyone positive for COVID-19 would be isolated from the other women.

Garcia, whose organization has provided hospitality for hundreds of migrants at a time, said they are prepared for the six women with potentially unique needs during a pandemic. Annunciation House recently housed a man in a wheelchair who had been released from ICE’s Otero County Processing Center because he was at high risk of complications if infected by the novel coronavirus.

One of the Annunciation House shelter beds to be used by women being released by ICE on Wednesday. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

“What was huge was that he knew that he was free. That he was with people that that were caring for him with no motivation other than his well-being,” he said. 

Mary Bull, an eight-year volunteer at Annunciation House, is among the three people who will care for the six women. She acknowledged that the circumstances are different from her prior efforts to care for migrants.

“We have a list of how long the virus sticks on certain things and what’s the high priority to make sure that things are cleaned. And really just understanding how to best give hospitality to people who are at higher risk. How do you create a bond with someone when you’re in a space suit? It’s a whole different ball game,” Bull said. 

Garcia said Annunciation House was prepared to take in more ICE detainees if the agency agrees to an orderly release as part of efforts to slow COVID-19 infections.

Conditions at El Paso Processing Center

In an unusual step, Montalvo toured the ICE detention facility on Monday along with the women’s attorneys to see conditions first-hand.

Benoit said ICE had taken a number of steps since the suit was filed on Friday, such as no longer having detainees sleeping above and below each other in bunk beds and providing masks to detainees. But he said conditions in the detention center remain dangerous, including ICE staff not following social distancing guidelines.

“Their facility still was not capable of providing the space necessary to make sure that every woman had six foot distance at all times,” Benoit said. 

The attorney said ICE told him about 300 detainees remain in the El Paso Processing Center, which in the past has reported holding more than 1,000 people.

“Further release is really the only way that they’re gonna be able to get those numbers down to a place where they can safely socially distance the people that are left,” Benoit said.

Heidi Cerneka, an attorney with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, represents the youngest and oldest women in the lawsuit in their pending immigration cases.

“Today we celebrate their release. But they should never have been detained. It will take years to recover their health, their sense of trust and safety after the physical and emotional trauma and damage caused by the unnecessary custody. And attorneys expended dozens, if not hundreds of hours  to secure the release that should have been immediate,” Cerneka said.

Benoit declined to comment on whether further suits might be coming to seek release from El Paso ICE detention during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Similar lawsuits around the country

A number of lawsuits have been filed across the country seeking release of detainees as COVID-19 began spreading in March, with mixed results. This appears to be the first time ICE has settled such a lawsuit, Benoit said. 

In a statement on Monday, ICE said it segregates detainees with symptoms of COVID-19. Detainees who have been exposed to people with COVID-19 also are separated from the general population, the agency said.

ICE has released 700 people considered at risk of COVID-19 complications, but more than 30,000 people remain in its custody across the country. As of Monday, 360 detainees nationwide had tested positive for COVID-19, including seven at the El Paso Processing Center.

ICE detainees are not accused of crimes. They are held while in a civil process to determine their immigration status. The agency has broad discretion for people going through immigration court hearings, including providing alternatives to detention.

The six women were represented by attorneys from Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and the University of Texas School of Law Civil Rights Clinic.

Cover photo: Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s El Paso Processing Center, where six women were released on Wednesday after suing to seek their freedom over fears of COVID-19 infection.

Disclosure: Chris Benoit, one of the attorneys representing the six women in a lawsuit against ICE, also is representing Robert Moore of El Paso Matters in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against ICE, Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Health and Human Services.

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Robert Moore

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986. His work has received a number of top journalism honors including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, Pulitzer Prize finalist and the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award. Moore’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, ProPublica, National Public Radio, The Guardian and other publications. He has been featured as an expert on border issues by CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC and PBS.

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