Update: Today, April 15, eight detainees who were plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed on April 14 against ICE and GEO Group were released from the ICE facility in Aurora. “RMIAN is elated to see the release of these eight resilient women,” says Laura Lunn of the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, one of the lawyers who filed the case, in a statement about the release. “Yesterday, our clients were trapped in a cage that stripped them of any autonomy over their personal safety and well being. Today, these women are finally able to protect themselves. It is astonishing the difference a day — and a federal lawsuit — makes.”
All eight of the women released are HIV-positive, making them particularly vulnerable to contracting a serious case of COVID-19.
Read our original April 14 story below:
Attorneys filed suit in U.S. District Court of Colorado today, April 14, against Immigration and Customs Enforcement and private prison company GEO Group, to compel the release of immunocompromised detainees from an immigrant detention facility in Aurora.
"Petitioners in this case, whose individual medical histories and circumstances put them at higher risk of severe complications or death from COVID-19, cannot wait for the inevitable outbreak to occur," the complaint states. "Without this Court’s intervention, Petitioners will continue to face the imminent risk of severe illness or death."
The fourteen detainee plaintiffs are being represented by lawyers from the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and the Arnold and Porter law firm's Denver office. Nine of the detainees are HIV-positive. The complaint asks a federal judge to order the release of the detainees on the grounds that their Fifth Amendment right to "due process" is being violated by their continued detention in the Aurora facility, which is run by GEO Group through a contract with ICE.
In addition to filing suit, lawyers have asked for a temporary restraining order that would expedite the process for how quickly a judge rules.
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National Immigration Project attorneys have filed similar lawsuits in Maryland, Louisiana, Virginia and Washington, D.C., among other places. So far, those cases have met with mixed results: Some judges have approved the petitions for release, while others have rejected them.
Since March 24, six detainees at the Aurora facility have filed individual petitions asking to be released. One detainee ended up being released before the petition could be adjudicated, and voluntarily dismissed it. Another detainee had his initial temporary restraining order denied. But that case, as well as the four others, remains ongoing.
So far, three GEO Group staffers and two ICE employees who work at the facility have tested positive for COVID-19. There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among detainees at the Aurora facility, according to ICE. Staffers from Representative Jason Crow's office visit the facility weekly; their most recent report listed 527 detainees at the facility. While a handful of detainees have been tested for COVID-19, none of the tests have come back positive.
But local immigration lawyers and public health experts contend that it's not a matter of if, but when COVID-19 will start to spread among detainees.
Civil-rights attorneys have long accused the detention facility of medical neglect. In recent years, several infectious-disease outbreaks have led to quarantines of whole dormitories filled with close to eighty detainees each.
Concerned for their clients, local lawyers are also filing humanitarian parole requests, asking ICE to release their clients from the Aurora facility. According to ICE headquarters in D.C., the agency is already identifying those who might be particularly vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 and is evaluating them for possible release. Additionally, ICE says that it's working to limit the number of new people who enter its detention system.
In addition to filing the lawsuit and asking for humanitarian paroles, lawyers are also attempting to put pressure on ICE by asking Governor Jared Polis for support.
On April 13, physicians and immigration lawyers sent a letter to Polis, urging him to "take any and all steps possible to compel an orderly but significant reduction in the number of people detained" in ICE custody.
Their letter argues that "while the enforcement of immigration law is generally the responsibility of the federal government, we believe that the state of Colorado can and should play a critical role in working to regulate the unnecessary mass detention of people within its borders given the nature of the GEO/ICE contract facility in Aurora, and the unique circumstances created by the current national emergency."
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The letter notes that the Aurora facility is fully owned and operated by GEO Group, a private company, and not by the federal government, and points to regulation enacted by California lawmakers as precedent for state action in Colorado, especially during a pandemic.
Asked about the letter, Polis spokesman Conor Cahill responds that "the Governor has acted swiftly and boldly in the face of this pandemic, including issuing directives and guidelines to prisons, jails and youth facilities to mitigate the likelihood of an outbreak. And while the ICE detention facility is a federal facility — and not under the jurisdiction of the state — he would encourage them to follow those same guidelines, including following federal, state and local directives on social distancing and safely reducing the population of those being held, especially those being held on civil violations."
Cahill adds that Polis is encouraging the federal government to "release those who are being held for civil reasons, not for criminal reasons, to keep those being detained as well as federal employees safe, and mitigating the likelihood of contracting this virus.”
ICE declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing ongoing litigation. Pablo Paez, executive vice president of corporate relations for GEO Group, sent this response: "As you know, as a service provider, GEO plays no role in those decisions, which are made exclusively by the government and the courts."