Law360 (May 1, 2020, 6:01 PM EDT) -- A Louisiana federal magistrate judge has recommended the release of 13 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees who are at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus, saying that harboring them "poses a grave and unconstitutional risk" while failing to serve the public's interest.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph H.L. Perez-Montes said Thursday that detainees at five detention centers in Louisiana have shown that they will suffer "irreparable harm" if they are not released from ICE's custody.
Even though ICE has taken steps to protect detainees from COVID-19, the measures are not enough to protect particularly vulnerable individuals, Judge Perez-Montes said.
"Unlike other courts, the undersigned cannot find that the corrective measures evidenced by respondents are, in and of themselves, enough to moot petitioners' claims altogether," he said.
Judge Perez-Montes said the fact that one of the detainees in this suit has already contracted the novel virus is "powerful evidence that the threat to them could be immediate."
The detainees in this case petitioned for their release April 14 alleging that their age and preexisting medical conditions put them at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus while in detention.
In response, the government argued that ICE had already taken measures at the Louisiana detention centers to protect vulnerable detainees from the novel virus, including screening visitors to the facilities and isolating detainees who have the virus.
Multiple lawsuits have been filed across the U.S. seeking the release of immigrant detainees during the coronavirus outbreak, achieving mixed results. Judges in D.C. and Louisiana both ruled in April that they don't have the authority to release detainees who are at a higher risk of contracting the virus in ICE's custody.
However, a California federal judge told ICE to promptly evaluate and potentially release thousands of vulnerable detainees, blasting the agency for its inaction to protect them. And a Massachusetts federal judge ordered detainees to be released, citing the urgent need to reduce the state's jail population during the pandemic.
Democratic lawmakers in early April proposed a bill to release the majority of immigrants in civil detention and limit immigration enforcement in light of the virus outbreak. But the bill has failed to make progress in the House or Senate since the time it was introduced.
The detainees' attorney Sirine Shebaya said in a Thursday statement that they are "delighted that the court has seen the dangers to our clients of their detention during this pandemic."
"While the decision is not final yet, we hope to be celebrating our clients' release very soon, and hope that this proves to be a starting point for many more releases from these dangerous immigration detention facilities," Shebaya said.
Counsel for the government declined to comment Friday.
The detainees are represented by William P. Quigley of Loyola University School of Law, Matthew S. Vogel and Sirine Shebaya of National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.
The government is represented by Edwin Henry Byrd of the U.S. attorney's office.
The case is Dada et al. v. Witte et al., case number 1:20-cv-00458, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.
--Additional reporting by Suzanne Monyak, Chris Villani and Hailey Konnath. Editing by Abbie Sarfo.
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