COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) — A federal judge ordered the release of 11 immigrant detainees Thursday after finding that their imprisonment by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in an Ohio county jail was preventing them from recovering from Covid-19.
U.S. District Judge Sarah Morrison, a Trump appointee in the Southern District of Ohio, ordered 13 detainees to self-quarantine at home as a condition of their release from the Morrow County Jail in Mt. Gilead, a small village 45 miles north of Columbus.
The detainees had requested release in a motion for a preliminary injunction. Morrison had already granted release to three of the detainees in an April 27 order, and the motions of 10 others were not granted. All 23 had been detained in the Morrow and Butler County jails, where they alleged squalid conditions that ICE and jail staff did not convincingly testify to contradict, she wrote.
The released detainees, represented by attorneys from the ACLU of Ohio, had all tested positive for Covid-19 and claimed underlying health conditions ranging from thyroid cancer to untreated diabetes to a gunshot wound to the chest. Both they and their unreleased fellow petitioners were in civil detention, and Morrison found that “there is no evidence that any are particularly dangerous.”
Morrison cast doubt on the jail’s ability to care for the detainees, noting that ICE and jail officials “have been unable to point to a single case” when a detainee was able to consult with a doctor; that nursing care was sparse; and that correctional officers were performing most, if not all, vitals checks on their prisoners, often with a language barrier.
She also noted that the only evidence provided by the government on conditions in the jail came from Department of Homeland Security manager Christopher LaBier, who supervises ICE’s southern Ohio detention facilities. LaBier, she noted, had not visited either jail at issue since the beginning of the pandemic.
“The Additional Petitioners have an incentive to embellish their testimony,” she wrote. “But Mr. LaBier and the Morrow staff have a similar incentive to minimize the severity of the jail’s conditions.”
She also noted that officers appeared to be taking detainees’ temperatures with expired thermometers, and had provided 40 temperature readings of for Covid-19 positive people, none of which were above 98.1 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It is not credible that not one of these individuals had an elevated temperature when a fever is a hallmark of the disease with which they are infected,” she said.
University of San Francisco law professor Bill Hing said that looked bad for the government agency.
“If ICE failed to present credible opposing evidence, then that’s pretty irresponsible on the part of ICE,” he said. “It says two things — one, where’s the counter-evidence, and two, you mean to tell me that you can’t present somebody from your side who’s been in recently? That’s a real problem for them.”
That said, Hing pointed out, cases like these are not always slam dunks, even with Covid-19 devastating prison populations across the country.
“Before Covid, the standard test was, ‘Are you likely to abscond, and are you a danger to the community?’” he said. “Those are the two questions the judges have to answer. But now the attorneys are saying that the urgency of the possibility of getting infected adds another dimension that puts a burden on ICE.”
He added: “Judges haven’t bought that yet, for people who don’t have underlying conditions, but that’s the argument that’s being used by more immigration lawyers, that the burden has shifted.”
Emily Ryo, a professor of law and sociology at the University of Southern California, said Morrison made the right call from a public health standpoint.
“Infection will beget infection in these congregate settings where social distancing is all but impossible, and where detainees are not provided with adequate information and basic hygiene items necessary to keep themselves safe,” she said. “Detention facilities are part and parcel of the local communities in which they sit. That means detention health is public health.”
All of the released detainees were instructed to inform ICE of the address where they would be staying until the conclusion of the case, along with the names and phone numbers of all the adults at that address.