(CN) — A federal judge in California advanced a nationwide class action lawsuit over poor access to medical and mental health care at federal detention facilities, as infections rise among detainees.
The court’s order on Wednesday comes as multiple lawsuits have been filed against Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security across the country over a lack of proper medical care during the Covid-19 pandemic.
ICE has confirmed several detainees at multiple facilities are infected with Covid-19, and immigration advocacy groups have said detainees at multiple locations are on hunger strikes to protest overcrowded cells and lack of medical checks to avoid the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The initial complaint filed in August 2019 highlighted living conditions at 160 facilities run by private prison companies under contracts with ICE and DHS.
According to the complaint filed in the Central District of California, disabled detainees are discriminated against due to a lack of adequate mental and physical health care. Those with mental health issues are isolated from the rest of the population as punishment and others with disabilities are left to fend for themselves.
Faour Fraihat, 57, is the lead plaintiff and a partially blind detainee who claims his vision problems have been ignored by federal officials and staff at the Adelanto detention facility about 85 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
Fraihat said a specialist outside of the prison recommended he undergo surgery to correct his eyesight but he has been largely ignored by Adelanto officials.
On March 25, the plaintiffs filed an emergency preliminary injunction to order the government to address the lack of action over the pandemic.
U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal has not yet ruled on that motion, but on Wednesday he advanced the class action lawsuit writing the plaintiffs’ “allegations—though lengthy—are material and are warranted in light of the alleged nationwide application of the challenged government policies.”
In court filings, the defendants sought to divide the case into 15 individual cases in 8 separate courts, but those motions were denied.
In the 23-page order, Bernal writes the objection raised by the government that the complaint is “too long and that many parts do not directly involve plaintiffs” does not hold water because all the plaintiffs share common questions of law and fact.
“However, in a case bringing a structural challenge to government policies, the existence of a systemic practice is bolstered by allegations regarding similarly situated non-plaintiffs,” Bernal wrote. “Likewise, background information and other entities’ observations are highly pertinent to such claims, which in this case implicate the rights of thousands of individuals in ICE custody.”
The plaintiffs are represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Disability Rights Advocates, Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center and the law firms Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and Willkie Farr & Gallagher.
In a statement, plaintiff Ruben Mencias Soto, who is being held at the Adelanto facility, and has dislocated and herniated discs in his back said, “Mentally, they are killing us. What I am living and what I am seeing is not only my situation. This is unjust as a system. [The government] is falling to the lowest level with ICE.”
SPLC’s Deputy Legal Director Lisa Graybill said in a statement, “The court saw through ICE’s deliberate mischaracterization of our case. This is the first step in holding ICE to account for its appalling treatment of the tens of thousands of immigrants needlessly incarcerated and languishing in its prisons around the country.”
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties filed a separate class action lawsuit against ICE Thursday over its agents posing as local law enforcement to trick community members to open their doors.
Immigration agents impersonate either police or probation officers and enter private homes without consent or a judicial warrant, according to the complaint filed on behalf of a proposed class, including native Honduran Osny Sorto-Vasquez Kidd.
In the complaint, Kidd says he has Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status but was arrested by immigration agents in October 2018, who “used deception to enter his home without a warrant or valid consent and to persuade him to exit his home.”
Kidd was held at the Adelanto facility for two months before his release.
“These practices trample on well-established Fourth Amendment rights,” writes Terra Castillo Laughton with Munger, Tolles & Olson on behalf of the proposed class.
Under California law, ICE agents do not qualify as a peace officer and Los Angeles officials urged ICE in 2017 to stop impersonating police because it “undermines decades of work” by the local police department, according to the complaint.
The complaint filed in federal court in LA includes 10 stories from people who say ICE agents used deceptive tactics to enter their homes.
An ICE spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.