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US judge orders release of 13 illegal immigrants in PA, calling ICE incapable of protecting them from coronavirus behind bars

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Officers arrested 271 criminal aliens last week in an enforcement action targeting individuals who pose a threat to public safety and immigration violations. (ICE/Released)

A federal judge in Harrisburg ordered the immediate release Tuesday of 13 immigrants from detention centers across Pennsylvania, saying authorities have not taken adequate measures to protect them from the threat of a coronavirus outbreak behind bars.

The group, from countries across the globe, are all being all held in county jails that contract with ICE and face deportation proceedings or have pending asylum claims. They appear to be one of the largest groups of immigrant detainees in the nation subject to a court-ordered release since the pandemic’s start.

Each has underlying medical conditions that lawyers with the ACLU of Pennsylvania said put them more at-risk should an outbreak erupt behind bars. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III ordered ICE to free them all on personal recognizance bonds from facilities in York, Clinton and Pike Counties before the end of the day Tuesday.

“It would be heartless and inhumane not to recognize [the] petitioner’s plight,” the judge wrote. “Should we fail to [order their release] … we will be party to an unconscionable and possibly barbaric result.”

Jones’ order comes amid increasing alarm from public health advocates, public defenders and even some prosecutors who warn that the close quarters of jails, prisons and detention centers make proper hygiene and social distancing impossible. It follows a similar decision Thursday from a judge in Manhattan who released 10 immigrants facing deportation proceedings there.

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Philadelphia and New Jersey have both launched efforts to thin their jail populations of low-level, non-violent offenders and those who fall within the highest risk categories for contracting the disease.

ICE has, thus far, resisted calls for similar efforts, arguing that they can safely and effectively quarantine detainees who develop symptoms to prevent outbreaks within their detention centers’ wall.

Still, in a recent letter to Congress, two medical experts with the Department of Homeland Security described the nation’s overcrowded immigration lock-ups as a “tinderbox” just waiting to explode with infection. In the Pennsylvania facilities, immigrants are housed 60 to 70 to a pod and share anywhere from four to six infrequently cleaned toilets and showers between them.

Attorneys for ICE and the county jails argued in the Harrisburg case that none of the immigrants seeking release had standing to bring a claim since they had not yet contracted COVID-19 or suffered any other harm.

Jones rejected that notion, noting that the agency was effectively arguing that detainees’ lives must be put at risk for disease before they would agree to act.

“It does not even seem that ICE is providing detainees with proper information on how they can combat the virus on their own,” he wrote. “Troublingly, some facilities seem to have shut off detainee access to news outlets, thereby preventing the [detainee] population from informing themselves on best practices to prevent transmission.”

In his order, Jones gave ICE until April 7 to show why his temporary order releasing the 13 migrants should not be made permanent. In the meantime, he said, the agency could deploy any number of other methods to ensure they show up for their court dates including remote monitoring and required in-person check-ins.

A spokesperson for ICE did not immediately return requests for comment.

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© 2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer