Class Action Lawsuit Seeks Release Of People Held at Tacoma Detention Center Who Are at High Risk from COVID-19

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 8th, 2020

Media contact

Matt Adams, NWIRP
(206) 957-8611; matt@nwirp.org

Hanna Johnson, ACLU
(650) 464-1698, hjohnson@aclu.org

 


SEATTLE – Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU-WA), and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal class-action lawsuit today on behalf of individuals at high risk from COVID-19 who are currently detained at the immigration detention center in Tacoma, Washington. The lawsuit, which was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, asks the court to order the release of four named individuals and all others detained at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC, also known as the Northwest ICE Processing Center) whose age or medical conditions place them at greater risk of serious illness or death if they are infected with COVID-19.

 

The case, Castañeda Juarez v. Asher, follows a decision last week by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Ricardo S. Martinez, who ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials to release a long-time resident of the U.S. from the NWDC. The class action case filed today asks the federal court to order ICE to release all other people at the detention center who meet the criteria determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as placing them at heightened risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19.

 

Today’s lawsuit comes only one day after ICE acknowledged the first death of a person in their custody who had been infected by COVID-19. Carlos Escobar-Mejia, who had resided in California for four decades, died on Wednesday at a hospital in Southern California after being detained by ICE at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, where over a hundred cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed. ICE refused to release Mr. Escobar-Mejia despite the fact that he met the criteria set out by the CDC as placing him at higher risk of serious complications if he became infected.

 

“Every time I hear someone cough or sneeze I get scared. Every time I think “what if” and wonder if I am going to get sick. If I get sick inside of here, I believe I will die,” said Wilfredo Favela, one of the plaintiffs in this case. “I know the importance of washing my hands and social distancing, but it is impossible here. There is no way to maintain six feet of distance when you have someone sleeping less than three feet away from you. I am most nervous when we are all having lunch. During meals, we all sit a few inches away from each other. Sometimes you don’t know who the person sitting next to you has been in contact with. Maybe they were in court, or at the medical unit, but you don’t know who they have been exposed to.”

 

“ICE continues to detain medically-vulnerable people in places like the Tacoma detention center when we know these types of actions have already led to fatal consequences,” said Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. “We are asking the Court to step in to enforce our clients’ constitutional rights because ICE continues to disregard their health and safety. Absent immediate action, more people will likely die.”

 

“Public health experts have been warning for months that ICE detention will be a hotbed for the spread of COVID-19, and that prediction is just now coming to bear,” said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “This week, we saw the first known death of a detained person within an ICE facility. Unfortunately, this is likely just the beginning of the death and suffering that will occur in detention facilities. For our clients with pre-existing medical conditions, a COVID-19 infection will likely be a death sentence. We urge the court to avert the worst of a humanitarian disaster and release them immediately.”

 

The class action case was filed on behalf of four named plaintiffs currently detained at NWDC: Josue Castañeda Juarez, who has asthma, aortic stenosis, and other serious medical conditions; Wilfredo Favela Avendaño, who has asthma; J.A.M., who has diabetes and a serious lung injury due to being a victim of a gunshot; and Naeem Khan, who has diabetes. Today’s complaint also asks the federal court to treat the case as a class action so it can cover all others at the NWIPC who are at higher risk if they are infected with COVID-19.

 

To view a copy of the complaint filed today, click here.