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Ann Mullen,, 313-400-8562

April 8, 2020



In a victory ruling, U.S. District Judge Judith Levy ruled Thursday to release an ACLU and law firm client, Amer Toma. Client Ruby Briselda Salgeuro Escobar was released on Monday.

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DETROIT, Mich. — The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the ACLU’s National Prison Project and Immigrants’ Rights Project, and the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP are suing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in federal court on behalf of immigrants detained by ICE in crowded jail facilities in Calhoun, Monroe and St. Clair Counties at the height of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. The legal organizations seek the immediate release of people who are in civil detention and, due to age and/or significant medical conditions, are at high risk for serious illness or death in the event of COVID-19 infection.  

Because there is no vaccine, cure, or effective treatment for COVID-19, the only known way to protect against serious illness or death caused by the novel coronavirus is social distancing coupled with strict hygiene, both of which are virtually impossible in a detention setting. For those reasons, correctional public health experts recommend the immediate release of those who are vulnerable to suffering the most acutely from COVID-19, as well as drastic reductions in the number of people detained.

The ACLU’s legal actions, which consist of one petition filed late last week and a second filing today, argue that the continued detention of medically vulnerable immigrants violates their right to due process. The lawsuits include testimony from leading public health experts Dr. Robert Greifinger and Dr. Jonathan Golob about the current public health crisis and the danger posed by the continued detention of people, confined in close quarters and unhygienic conditions, who face a high risk of illness or death should they be exposed to COVID-19.

Michigan is one of the epicenters for the coronavirus with the third highest number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., according to the CDC.  The CDC has identified people as particularly high risk who have blood disorders, chronic kidney disease, chronic liver disease, compromised immune systems, current or recent pregnancy, endocrine disorders, metabolic disorders, heart disease, lung disease, and neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions.

The lawsuits describe the severe medical conditions of the people detained and the dangerous conditions in which they are confined. The following is a summary of a few of those cases:

  • Jose Nicolas Chavez-Vargas is a 50-year-old Mexican national detained at the Monroe County Jail, where he has been held since February 20, 2020.  He came to the U.S. approximately 24 years ago and suffers from hypertriglyceridaemia and heart diseaseMr. Chavez-Vargas is supposed to take medication but has not received it.  Others who are detained at the facility with him are coughing, no one has been given hand sanitizer or other protective supplies besides soap, and guards only began wearing face masks and gloves yesterday, April 6, 2020.  Everyone sleeps in dormitories that house approximately 100 people, with about 50-60 bunkbeds per dormitory.  The beds are only 3–4 feet apart from each other.  People continue to eat their meals communally, multiple times per day.
  • Gener Alejandro Chinchilla-Flores, a 36-year-old Costa Rican national has been detained at the Monroe County Jail since February 25, 2020.  Mr. Flores came to the U.S. from Costa Rica about 19 years ago. Mr. Chinchilla-Flores suffers from chronic asthma, but has yet to be provided with an inhaler.  Because of his medical condition, he is at a high risk of serious complications stemming from COVID-19 should he become infected. Mr. Chinchilla-Flores is detained with people who are constantly coughing but have not been given face masks or other personal protective equipment, and he reports that the jail is infested with maggots.
  • Amer Toma is 55-years-old and has been detained at the Calhoun County Correctional Facility since February 2020.  From September 2019 to February 2020, he was detained at St. Clair County Jail. He came to the U.S. 10 years ago as a refugee and sought to stay here for fear of persecution if returned to Iraq. He was granted withholding of removal under the Convention Against Torture, and  is being detained solely because the government appealed. He has three bullets lodged in his body after being shot multiple times during the Iran-Iraq War.  Mr. Toma also suffers from hypotension and was hospitalized two years ago for prostate issues.  His unit in the Calhoun detention facility has 56 people and they are rarely six feet away from each other. When eating, he sits at a table with four or six other people approximately two feet from each other. 

Mr. Toma’s petition is pending before Judge Judith E. Levy, who late Sunday ordered the release of Janet Malam, a British woman who is also a plaintiff in the same case, and who suffers from multiple sclerosis, obstructive pulmonary disease and other severe health conditions. In her 45-page opinion, Judge Levy wrote, “As prison officials are beginning to recognize around the country, even the most stringent precautionary measure—short of limiting the detained population itself—simply cannot protect detainees from the extremely high risk of contracting this unique and deadly disease.”

And after the ACLU’s filing on behalf of Ruby Briselda Escobar, ICE released her yesterday. Ms. Escobar, who was born in El Salvador with a heart murmur and had been in civil immigration detention at Calhoun County Correction Center since November 2018, was released by ICE on Monday.  Ms. Escobar came to the U.S. in 2013. She has been released, and hopes to be reunited with her three children who are all in foster care.

Miriam Aukerman, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan, issued the following statement:

“In this pandemic, we are all connected, and it is more important than ever to keep everyone safe. Public health experts warn that social distancing is absolutely necessary to limit the spread of COVID-19. But for immigrants locked in detention in close quarters with hundreds of other people, social distancing is not an option. ICE has the responsibility to protect the safety of everyone in their custody. As a first step, ICE should immediately release those who have already been identified by the CDC as being most at risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19. If ICE waits to react to worst case scenarios, it will be too late.”

Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, issued the following statement:

“Public health experts have warned that failing to reduce the number of people detained — and in particular, failing to release those particularly vulnerable to the disease — endangers the lives of everyone in the detention facility, including staff, and the broader community. Immigrant detention facilities are institutions that uniquely heighten the danger of disease transmission. ICE must act now, and release people from custody.”

Jeannie Rhee, lead counsel for the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, issued the following statement:

“Immigrant detention should not be a death sentence. Jails are not designed or equipped to handle this extraordinary public health crisis. Michigan already has one of the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the nation. ICE’s failure to act now will surely contribute to the spread of this virus throughout the state, as well as needless and avoidable loss of life.”