Attorneys sue ICE to release medically vulnerable detainees from Aurora detention center

Detention is not supposed to be punishment. But with COVID-19, it can be a death sentence, attorneys say

Protesters outside the ICE contracted GEO Facility in Aurora on April 9, 2020. (Photo by Forest Wilson)
Protesters outside the ICE contracted GEO Facility in Aurora on April 9, 2020. On April 14, immigration attorneys sued ICE and Geo Group to release 14 at-risk detainees. (Photo by Forest Wilson)

Update on April 15: After immigration attorneys filed the federal lawsuit against ICE seeking the release of 14 medically at-risk detainees, the agency released eight women, all of whom have HIV, according to a news release from immigration attorneys. “Yesterday, our clients were trapped in a cage that stripped them of any autonomy over their personal safety and wellbeing. Today, these women are finally able to protect themselves. It is astonishing the difference a day – and a federal lawsuit – makes,” said Laura Lunn of the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network. An ICE spokeswoman said the women are named plaintiffs in a lawsuit, the agency cannot offer any comment or confirmation.

Immigration attorneys on Tuesday sued ICE and GEO Group, which operates a detention center in Aurora, in an effort to release medically at-risk detainees with underlying health conditions. 

The Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and the Arnold and Porter law firm filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of 14 detainees who have conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, respiratory illness or HIV. This makes them vulnerable to COVID-19, a disease that has already killed more than 329 people in Colorado. 

The lawsuit is alleging a violation of the Fifth Amendment, which forbids the government from depriving a person of life, liberty or property without due process. 

Detention, which is used to ensure people show up to immigration court, is not supposed to be punitive even though people who have not been convicted of a crime often wait in detention for months. Immigration attorneys say the conditions at the facility all but ensure there will be a COVID-19 outbreak among the detainees because, they say, employees are not using personal protective equipment, there are insufficient cleaning supplies, and social distancing guidelines are not being followed. And were there to be an outbreak, they say, detention would become a death sentence. 

“ICE’s needless detention of people in the immigration system has always been excessive, but in the current circumstances, it is also recklessly endangering lives,” said Sirine Shebaya, the executive director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, one of the groups working on the case. 

As of April 6, about 527 people were being held in the facility. At least two ICE employees and three GEO Group employees at the facility have tested positive for COVID-19. According to Rep. Jason Crow’s office, which has been doing regular investigations into the ICE facility, at least two detainees have been tested and the results for both were negative. 

Immigration advocates have long criticized GEO Group and ICE for the treatment of detainees at the Aurora facility, with some alleging medical neglect. The agency and company have isolated immigrants in solitary confinement and one person with a substance use disorder died in 2017 after being forced into addiction withdrawal.

Immigration attorneys have been filing individual petitions to get people released on humanitarian parole. This has been a time-consuming process, said Laura Lunn, managing attorney of the detention program at the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network. She said there are about 100 pending requests for parole. 

Immigration lawyers on Monday sent a letter to Gov. Jared Polis calling on him to regulate businesses that operate detention centers to prevent the use of the GEO Group-owned facility. They point to the example of California, where lawmakers voted to ban private prisons and detention centers. 

“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,” the letter states. 

Conor Cahill, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said the governor has issued guidance 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 said. “Additionally, we strongly encourage  Congress and the President to address the issue promptly. The Governor does not have jurisdiction in this case over this federal facility but is doing everything in his power to urge 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 said it cannot comment on pending litigation. A spokesman for GEO Group said, “As a service provider, GEO plays no role in those decisions—they are made exclusively by the Federal Government and the courts.” 

In an email, ICE said it has identified 550 detainees over the age of 60 or pregnant across the nation. Of this population, ICE said, the agency identified more than 160 people for release after evaluating their immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk, and national security concerns. 

“This same methodology is currently being applied to other potentially vulnerable populations currently in custody and while making custody determinations for all new arrests. Additionally, ERO [Enforcement and Removal Operations] has limited the intake of new detainees being introduced into the ICE detention system. ICE’s detained population has dropped by more than 4,000 individuals since March 1, 2020 with a more than 60 percent decrease in book-ins when compared to this time last year,” the statement said. 

Many detainees are seeking asylum or are accused of violating U.S. immigration laws. At least 10 of the people in the lawsuit are trans people, many of whom are seeking asylum because they fear torture or persecution due to thier transgender identity if they return home. 

According to the lawsuit, the 14 people seeking relief are: 

  • Jennifer Leaford Codner, a 54-year-old transgender woman from Jamaica. Codner is applying for asylum, withholding of removal or protection under the Convention Against Torture. Since being detained at the Aurora facility, she has suffered from boils on her skin.
  • Ndi Temah, a 23-year-old asylum seeker from Cameroon. Temah has hypertension, Mobitz Type I, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and a severe anxiety disorder. 
  • Madeline Tatis Belliard, a 40-year-old transgender woman who immigrated from the Dominican Republic. Belliard intends on submitting an application for asylum. Belliard has been diagnosed with HIV, asthma, schizoaffective disorder (depressive type), gender identity disorder and dysthymic disorder.
  • Sanela Hamzic, a 52-year-old who applied for asylum and cancellation of removal for lawful permanent residents. Hamzic has several diagnosed chronic conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, attention deficit disorder, depression and PTSD. 
  • Rafael Soria Mora a.k.a Benigno Velasquez Arenas, a 47-year-old immigrant from Mexico. He is applying for cancellation of removal. Soria Mora has chronic asthma, for which he uses an inhaler approximately 10–11 times a day. 
  • Alison Mendoza, a 35-year-old transgender woman from El Salvador. She is applying for asylum, withholding of removal or protection under the Convention Against Torture. Mendoza Mendoza has diabetes, high triglycerides, and high cholesterol.
  • Naomi Hernandez Morales, a 36-year-old transgender woman from El Salvador. She is applying for asylum, withholding of removal or protection under the Convention Against Torture. Hernandez Morales is HIV-positive.
  • Heidi Nicole Hidalgo Mendoza, a 22-year-old transgender woman from El Salvador. She is applying for asylum, withholding of removal or protection under the Convention Against Torture. Ms. Hidalgo Mendoza tested positive for HIV on April 2, 2020.
  • Violet Paz Alvarez, a 50-year-old transgender woman from Honduras. She is applying for asylum, withholding of removal or protection under the Convention Against Torture. She is HIV-positive.
  • Brittany Riviera Calero, a 22-year-old transgender woman from Honduras. She is applying for asylum, withholding of removal or protection under the Convention Against Torture. Ms. Riviera Calero is HIV-positive. 
  • Alexa Marroquin Gonzalez, a 30-year-old transgender woman from El Salvador. She is applying for asylum, withholding of removal or protection under the Convention Against Torture. Marroquin Gonzalez is HIV-positive. 
  • Iviian Montes Hernandez, a 27-year-old transgender woman from El Salvador. Montes Hernandez is applying for asylum, withholding of removal or protection under the Convention Against Torture. Montes Hernandez is HIV-positive. 
  • Monserrat Ramos Sierra, a 31-year-old transgender woman from Honduras. Ramos Sierra is HIV-positive. 
  • Alexandra Osorio Linares, a 29-year-old transgender woman from El Salvador. Osorio Linares is HIV-positive.

 

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