A leading civil rights organisation in the United States has filed a lawsuit in an effort to force federal agencies to release information about the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 in immigration detention centres.
In a statement on Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had not responded to a Freedom of Information Act request filed in May demanding records pertaining to the coronavirus pandemic.
“[The] defendants have withheld vital public health information necessary to safeguard the civil rights of detainees,” the ACLU said in its lawsuit, which seeks to find whether detainees who tested positive for COVID-19 were deported from the US.
Other information requested relate to any suspected or confirmed exposures linked to the detention facilities, access to personal protective equipment and coronavirus testing, among other things.
“As [the] defendants drag their feet, immigrants and staff in detention facilities continue to get infected and die from COVID-19,” the lawsuit also states.
The lawsuit comes after rights groups and immigrant rights’ advocates repeatedly raised concerns that immigration detainees face a greater risk of COVID-19 infection inside cramped detention facilities.
The immigration policies of President Donald Trump’s administration, especially the separation of parents from their children and the detention of children, have been widely criticised.
In September, a nurse who worked in an ICE facility in the state of Georgia alleged that detainees had improperly received hysterectomies and other gynaecological procedures while in detention.
The US has the world’s highest confirmed number of COVID-19 cases and deaths linked to the new coronavirus, reporting more than 9.6 million infections and more than 235,500 deaths on Friday, according to Johns Hopkins University.
As (the) defendants drag their feet, immigrants and staff in detention facilities continue to get infected and die from COVID-19
ICE says on its website that 402 detainees have been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of November 4 and were either in isolation or were being monitored. El Valle detention centre in the state of Texas had the most infections, at 43.
“Consistent with federal partners, ICE is taking important steps to further safeguard those in our care. As a precautionary measure, ICE has temporarily suspended social visitation in all detention facilities,” the agency said.
“The health, welfare and safety of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities.”
But Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s national prison project, said the “abuse, neglect and degradation” detainees face in ICE facilities has only worsened during the pandemic.
The ACLU has received reports about alleged sexual abuse, use of force, solitary confinement and other abusive conditions, Cho said in Friday’s statement, and “the escalating humanitarian crisis at ICE detention centres has not received the kind of alarm it deserves”.
“The decisions and policies that ICE uses to guide it during this pandemic are a matter of life or death for tens of thousands of detained people and the staff who work at these facilities,” Cho said.
“It is simply unacceptable that this agency thinks it can act with so little transparency and accountability.”