Law360 (March 23, 2020, 8:39 PM EDT) -- A federal judge must immediately release migrant families from residential centers that are "tinderboxes" for a devastating COVID-19 outbreak that will threaten the lives of parents and children, according to an emergency lawsuit filed in D.C. federal court.
Three dozen migrant families filed suit Saturday against the attorney general seeking the immediate release of people detained in family detention, where they say that medical treatment is inadequate and it is impossible to practice "social distancing" and disinfection as precautionary measures against contracting the highly contagious COVID-19 disease.
"All of the families are at risk at present, and their situation presents a grave situation, a tinderbox, that once sparked will create a crisis that threatens the lives of the women, men and children who are detained in family residential centers," the migrants said.
The migrants are also asking a judge to order the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to enact all measures to prevent the transmission of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and for a moratorium on any new family placements until the precautionary measures have been implemented.
According to the lawsuit, hundreds of families in the detention centers have begun exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, but are not being tested for the disease and are not receiving medicine to treat the symptoms, which include coughs, fever and shortness of breath.
Asylum-seekers who cross the border with minor children are detained in any one of three family detention centers in the U.S., which hold a combined 3,020 beds, according to RAICES, one of the organizations representing the migrants.
Families detained in these centers live very closely to others — toilets, sinks and showers are shared and food service is communal, according to the lawsuit.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that people keep six feet apart from others and frequently disinfect their hands, especially after being in public spaces, to prevent contracting COVID-19.
"Even in their beds they cannot even sleep or receive the required distance necessary to protect themselves," the migrants said.
Those detained in the Berks County, Pennsylvania facility say that new families entering the center include children sick with a cough, sore throat or fever.
Parents are refused medicine for their children and can only obtain gloves by participating in voluntary work programs. Furthermore, hand sanitizer is only freely provided in the Berks Center lobby and legal visitation room, areas forbidden to the detainees, the migrants said.
Migrants wait up to eight hours to receive medical care and frequently line up for two to three hours to see a doctor in the South Texas Family Residential Center, the largest of the three centers. Medical specialists aren't available on-site and the nearest hospital is a one-and-a-half hour drive away, the migrants said.
A mother detained in the facility in South Texas said in a declaration to the court that the guards haven't given the migrants information on COVID-19 or how to prevent getting it.
In all three of the centers, the migrants report that staff and security guards assigned to common spaces don't wear masks and gloves. They also claim that they themselves clean the residential areas through a voluntary work program.
The families argue that the conditions they are kept in amount to a violation of their Fifth Amendment rights and the Flores Settlement, an agreement that the federal government must provide minors in their care with special consideration.
Gregory Copeland, an attorney for the migrants, told Law360 that his clients are terrified.
"There are people in the detention center who know what they're supposed to do, but know it's absolutely impossible in the context of their detention to meet the most basic, minimum precautions," he said.
Immigration attorneys for the past two weeks have raised concerns over migrants in detention, saying they are trapped in communal spaces where the disease can easily pass from one person to another.
On March 19, DHS and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that staff members in an adult detention facility and a detention center for unaccompanied minors have reported positive for COVID-19.
Representatives for DHS did not respond to requests for comment.
The migrants are represented by Gregory P. Copeland and Sarah T. Gillman of Rapid Defense Network, Jacquelyn M. Kline and Amy Maldonado of ALDEA - the People's Justice Center and Manoj Govindaiah and Curtis F.J. Doebbler of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.
Counsel for the government was not immediately available Monday.
The case is O.M.G., et al v. Wolf, et al, case number 1:20-cv-00786, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
---Additional reporting by Suzanne Monyak. Editing by Emily Kokoll.
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