New Lawsuit Demands Release of All Transgender ICE Detainees

By Shani Saxon Apr 30, 2020

A group of immigration and LGBTQ+ rights activists filed a civll action lawsuit on Thursday (April 23) calling for the immediate releases of all transgender detainees being held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), NBC News reported on April 29. The suit alleges that ICE is endangering lives amid the rapid spread of COVID-19. “These people are not being punished for any crime but are being put at unreasonable and unconstitutional risk of infection, disease and death by the government’s failure to follow even its own basic safety and health rules,” the lawsuit states. 

Transgender Law Center, Ballard Spahr LLP and the Rapid Defense Network filed the federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, arguing that vulnerable transgender detainees are unable to practice social distancing inside civil immigration detention centers, which puts them at risk for contracting the novel coronavirus. As NBC reports, the suit categorizes trans detainees as a class and demands their immediate release via a class action injunction:

They constitute a class, the suit claims, in part because “as a group they are more likely to have underlying medical conditions making them vulnerable, such as infection with HIV, diabetes and high blood pressure.”

“I think you can show that there are common failures in these ICE detention centers that make it an efficient way for the court to deal with it as a class action,” Leslie E. John, a partner at Ballard Spahr, told NBC. The suit claims there are roughly 60 to several hundred transgender people currently detained by ICE. It also states that numerous community organizations are prepared to house and care for detainees once they are released en masse. 

Lynly Egyes, legal director at the Transgender Law Center, told NBC that trans ICE detainees have been mistreated for years, but those issues have been exacerbated by the global pandemic. “We have known for years and years and years that transgender people are not getting the medically necessary care they need in immigration detention, so that wasn’t a surprise,” she said. According to NBC, “Egyes said she and her organization started hearing reports from detainees about inadequate COVID-19 prevention measures over the past two months and connected with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a group in New Mexico whose social workers and attorneys investigated the claims inside several facilities scattered throughout the Southwest.”

That investigation accounts of crowded, unsanitary conditions and situations where “detainees cannot frequently wash hands, detention staff do not wear masks and people who are visibly ill are housed close to those who are not,” NBC reports. 

In an emailed statement to NBC, ICE declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit, but said the agency will make decisions regarding releases based on individual circumstances. “Due to the unprecedented nature of COVID-19, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is reviewing cases of individuals in detention deemed to be at higher risk for severe illness as a result of COVID-19,” the statement read. “Decisions to release individuals in ICE custody occur every day on a case-by-case basis.”

According to ICE’s own reporting, COVID-19 is rapidly spreading throughout detention facilities. There have been over 400 confirmed cases across dozens of centers over the past month. 

Per NBC:

R. Andrew Free, an immigration attorney based in Tennessee, said he is alarmed by estimates of the rate of infection of COVID-19 in ICE’s crowded facilities. Free cited a forthcoming study in the Journal of Urban Health that modeled the virus’ r naught (a measure of how many people each single contagious person infects) in ICE facilities under “optimistic” and “pessimistic” scenarios of 2.5 and 7 people infected respectively, and forecast that nearly three quarters of ICE detainees would be infected with the coronavirus within 90 days under the most optimistic scenario possible. The pessimistic scenarios forecast 100 percent infection rates in ICE centers well before three months.

Brandeis University researcher and epidemiologist Traci Green, who is also the lead author of the forthcoming study, told NBC the statistics are shocking. “It’s pretty stunning to see without doing anything, nearly every facility will have a pretty high infection rate,” she said. The study, according to NBC, “predicted that COVID-19 outbreaks at nine ICE detention centers would fill all the ICU beds at hospitals in a 50-mile radius.”