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Law360 (March 19, 2020, 10:33 PM EDT) -- A federal court in Seattle on Thursday shot down a bid by three civil rights nonprofits aiming to force U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release immigrants at a detention center in Washington state near the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S.
U.S. District Judge James L. Robart swept aside the request for a temporary restraining order lodged by nine detainees at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center, who had argued holding immigrants who are older or have medical conditions puts them at a higher risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.
Judge Robart said the immigrants hadn't shown that the government is trying to punish them by keeping them locked up, and their infection by the virus was only a "possibility" as opposed to a "likely" outcome of their continued detention.
"There is no evidence that anyone at NWDC has COVID-19, and plaintiffs do not address the measures defendants are taking to prevent such a spread from occurring," Judge Robart said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Washington and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed the case Wednesday, arguing detainees lives are in danger.
In ICE detention centers, immigrants can't practice safety measures recommended by health experts such as "social distancing" or disinfection to protect themselves from contracting the virus, the groups said. Immigrants who contract the coronavirus and are older or have certain medical conditions require extensive medical care, including oxygen support and pressure ventilation, according to the complaint.
Therefore, keeping immigrants who would need intensive care if they contract the coronavirus at detention centers constitutes cruel treatment and unlawful punishment in violation of the Fifth Amendment, the nonprofits said.
ICE responded Wednesday to the request for the restraining order, but the filing is not publicly available.
Attorneys have told Law360 that they are concerned ICE is not prepared to handle a potential outbreak of the virus at the agency's detention centers, where immigrants are trapped in communal spaces.
ICE has been hit with numerous lawsuits accusing it of not providing detainees with adequate medical care, including an August complaint alleging the agency has been failing to ensure centers operated by private contractors are meeting the standards of confinement mandated by federal law and the U.S. Constitution.
Eunice Cho, an attorney for the immigrants, said in a Thursday statement that the nonprofits would continue to litigate the case.
"Public health officials are in agreement — it is not a matter of if there is a COVID-19 outbreak in immigrant detention centers, but when," Cho said. "ICE should heed their warning. By refusing to immediately release our clients, ICE is jeopardizing their lives and the lives of its staff and their families."
ICE didn't respond Thursday to a request for comment.
The immigrants are represented by David C. Fathi, Eunice H. Cho, Omar C. Jadwat, Michael Tan, My Khanh Ngo, Enoka Herat and John Midgley of the ACLU, and Matt Adams, Aaron Korthuis and Tim Henry Warden-Hertz of NWIRP.
Counsel information for the government could not be immediately determined.
The case is Karlena Dawson et al. v. Nathalie Asher et al., case number 2:20-cv-00409, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.
--Additional reporting by Sarah Martinson. Editing by Breda Lund.
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