Advocacy groups on Thursday filed a class action lawsuit that demands U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement release all transgender people who are in their custody because they are more susceptible to the coronavirus.
The Transgender Law Center and the Rapid Defense Network, along with Ballard Spahr LLP, a Philadelphia-based law firm, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The lawsuit names as plaintiffs 13 trans women who are in ICE detention centers in Virginia, Louisiana, Texas, Colorado and California. Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf and U.S. Attorney General William Barr are named as defendants.
The lawsuit states trans people “in civil immigration detention — many of whom came to this country seeking safety from violence and persecution in their home countries because of their gender identities — are among the most vulnerable during the current pandemic.” It also says ICE “has not provided and cannot implement sufficient measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 in its facilities.”
One of the plaintiffs — a trans woman from Mexico who is in ICE custody at the Florence Correctional Center in Florence, Ariz., — says two of her fellow detainees who live in her pod have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Another plaintiff — a trans woman from El Salvador at the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, La., who has been in ICE custody for nearly a year — says nurses do not wear personal protective equipment and personnel at the facility have not provided her with information about the coronavirus. A trans Jamaican woman with HIV who is in ICE custody at the Nevada Southern Detention Center outside of Las Vegas says “staff … including medical staff, do not always wear gloves and masks.”
A trans Honduran woman who is in ICE custody at the Caroline Detention Facility in Bowling Green, Va., says it is “impossible for her to practice social distancing” because more than three dozen people live in her dormitory. Another trans Honduran woman who is detained at the Aurora Contract Detention Center in Aurora, Colo., claims she learned about “a confirmed case of COVID-19” at the facility while watching the news.
“Transgender people in civil immigration detention, as a group, are at a greater risk of contracting the virus that causes COVID-19 than the general population and, if they do become infected, are more likely to become seriously ill or die,” reads the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, among other things, notes trans people are more likely to have underlying medical conditions and have higher rates of HIV than other groups. The lawsuit also notes ICE detention centers “are plagued by chronic and well-documented failures to provide proper medical care to transgender people in civil immigration detention — problems that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and pose another enhanced risk of infection, disease and death for transgender people in civil immigration detention.”
Roxsana Hernández, a trans Honduran woman with HIV who was briefly detained at the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, N.M., died on May 25, 2018, while she was in ICE custody. Johana “Joa” Medina León, a trans Salvadoran woman with HIV, passed away at a hospital in El Paso, Texas, on June 1, 2019, three days after ICE released her from the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M.
The families of both trans women have filed wrongful death lawsuits against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security that oversees it.
“ICE’s failures to provide adequate medical care during the pandemic — building upon its inability to do so even in the best of times — put transgender people in civil immigration detention at further risk of serious illness or death should they become infected with the coronavirus,” reads the lawsuit filed by the Transgender Law Center and the Rapid Defense Network.
“Because ICE cannot provide adequate medical care to them, transgender people in civil immigration detention should be released immediately to safer environments,” it adds.
ICE on its website says there are 287 detainees with confirmed coronavirus cases. These include one at the Caroline Detention Facility, two at the Winn Correctional Center and 10 at the Florence Detention Center.
The Transgender Law Center is among the dozens of advocacy groups that demanded the release of all trans ICE detainees in a letter they sent to Wolf and Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence on Jan. 21. More than 40 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have made the same request.
ICE in previous interviews and statements to the Washington Blade has defended its treatment of trans detainees.
A 2015 memorandum then-ICE Executive Associate Director of Enforcement and Removal Operations Thomas Homan signed requires personnel to allow trans detainees to identify themselves based on their gender identity on data forms. The directive, among other things, also contains guidelines for a “respectful, safe and secure environment” for trans detainees and requires detention facilities to provide them with access to hormone therapy and other trans-specific health care.
U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on Monday ordered ICE to “identify and track all ICE detainees with risk factors” and said it “should consider the willingness of detainees with risk factors to be released.” The ruling notes ICE as of April 4 will consider for release detainees who are over 60, detainees “of any age having chronic illnesses which would make them immune-compromised” and those who are pregnant or have given birth within the last two weeks.
ICE on Thursday told the Blade in a statement the agency “is reviewing cases of individuals in detention deemed to be at higher risk for severe illness as a result of COVID-19.”
“Utilizing CDC guidance along with the advice of medical professionals, ICE may place individuals in a number of alternatives to detention options,” said ICE. “Decisions to release individuals in ICE custody occur every day on a case-by-case basis.”
Statistics indicate ICE as of April 10 has released 693 detainees during the pandemic.
Immigration Equality last week said ICE released four of its gay clients with HIV who had been detained at the Winn Correctional Center; the Richwood Correctional Center in Monroe, La.; and La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz. Trans Queer Pueblo, a Phoenix-based group that advocates on behalf of undocumented LGBTQ immigrants, says five LGBTQ asylum seekers who had been at La Palma Correctional Facility and the Eloy Detention Center, which is also in Arizona, left ICE custody on March 23.
ICE on March 4 released Yariel Valdés González, a Blade contributor who won asylum based on persecution he suffered in his native Cuba because he is a journalist. Valdés had been in ICE custody in Louisiana and Mississippi for nearly a year before his release.
ICE less than two weeks after Valdés’ release suspended in-person visitation at all of its detention facilities as part of its response to the pandemic. Media reports nevertheless indicate more than 30,000 people remain in ICE custody.