ACLU sues ICE to release medically frail detainees in Calhoun Co. jail

Agency faces 3 lawsuits in Michigan during COVID-19 crisis

By: - April 27, 2020 12:04 pm

Protest against ICE in Detroit | Susan J. Demas

Updated, 1:07 p.m. 4/27/20

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU) has leveled its third federal lawsuit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) this month seeking the immediate release of immigrant detainees at high risk for serious illness or death from COVID-19.

With the backing of a firm of more than 1,000 lawyers, the ACLU’s National Prison Project and Immigrants’ Rights Project, the newest class action lawsuit filed in federal court Sunday takes aim at the Calhoun County Jail in Battle Creek. The facility, also known as the Calhoun County Correctional Center, is the largest of ICE’s three detention centers in Michigan with approximately 130 immigrant detainees.

The lawsuit argues that the continued detention of medically vulnerable immigrants in Michigan, a COVID-19 hotspot, violates their right to due process. The ACLU cites prisoners’ inability to follow social distancing and proper hygiene due to the jail’s closely confined quarters and poor COVID-19 precautions.

The suit requests the immediate emergency release of six immigrants in particular who have medical conditions that put them at the highest risk for serious COVID-19 complications, including four men from Yemen, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, and two women from Cuba and China.

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Eight more detainees currently being held at the Calhoun County Jail also are named as plaintiffs who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19.

“Many people who are detained at Calhoun County Jail have been in the U.S. for years. Some came to escape the violence of their homeland and for a better life. Now, while waiting for their immigration case to wend its way through the courts, they sit in detention fearing that their dream of becoming a U.S. citizen could end their life,” said Jeannie Rhee, lead counsel for the New York City-based international law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.

“ICE must act now and release medically vulnerable people from detention so that their hope of living, working and being with their families in the U.S does not become a death sentence,” Rhee said.

Those named as defendants in the lawsuit alongside ICE are ICE Detroit District Director Rebecca Adducci, ICE Deputy Director Matthew Albence, Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Chad Wolf and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr.

According to ICE’s most recent COVID-19 numbers on its website from Friday, there are 317 confirmed cases among those in ICE custody nationwide and 88 cases among ICE employees. For Michigan, the only data available shows five detainees confirmed positive for COVID-19 at the St. Clair County Jail.

It is unclear, however, how many inmates are being tested, because ICE does not publicly release that information.

ICE declined to comment Monday. In a statement earlier this month, a spokesperson noted that “decisions to release individuals in ICE custody occur every day on a case-by-case basis.”

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Miriam Aukerman, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan said they “are in a race against time to get vulnerable people released from detention before it is too late. Outbreaks of COVID-19 at ICE detention centers have rapidly escalated in the past several weeks. “

The other two ICE detention centers in Michigan are the Monroe County Jail and the St. Clair County Jail in Port Huron. These are separate from the state’s roughly 30 prisons, which are operated by the Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC); the state’s 55 non-ICE county jails; and the privately owned North Lake Correctional Institution in Baldwin.

As of Monday morning, 1,363 prisoners at DOC facilities have tested positive for COVID-19 and 33 have died.

As of Sunday, 81 prisoners held at Michigan’s two Federal Correctional Institutions (FCI) have contracted COVID-19 and one has died. At least nine of those positive cases come from the GEO Group-owned North Lake Correctional Institution, which does not post its COVID-19 numbers publicly but still reports them to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

North Lake is the state’s only private, for-profit federal immigrant prison and has been the target of numerous protests since it opened on Oct. 1. Earlier this month, the Advance confirmed the existence of at least one organized hunger strike among prisoners held in solitary confinement, who cited concerns about unsafe conditions, inhumane treatment, improper COVID-19 precautions and more.

Just last week, a caravan of about 100 protesters gathered outside the Monroe County Jail to demand the release of its immigrant detainees.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.