Immigration Clinic Calls for Release of Detainee Exposed to COVID-19 Risks

Prison inmate with hands handcuffed behind back

The leadership at Miami Law’s Immigration Clinic is calling for the release of those held in immigration detention, as COVID-19 cases are breaking out in facilities across the country.

Clinic Director Rebecca Sharpless has long criticized federal immigration authorities for a pattern of holding immigrants far from access to legal counsel, as is the case with a current client, who is an asylum seeker, and detainee at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, a 1,700-bed private jail where at least one staff member has tested positive.

Presently, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is quietly moving detainees to facilities far from where they have been seeing attorneys, as was the case in the dark of night Friday at the Monroe County Detention Center in Key West.

“It is unclear whether the shuttering of Monroe will in the long term increase access to justice for detainees," said Sharpless. "I am concerned that ICE will respond by shipping even more people out of state, including to the country’s largest immigration detention center in Lumpkin, Georgia, a two-hour drive from Atlanta.”

As someone suffering from asthma and heart conditions, the clinic’s client is particularly vulnerable to the virus. The clinic has asked U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for the client's release but has not yet received a response.

"We are gravely concerned that ICE is lagging behind the criminal justice system in not reducing, or eliminating, its jailed population by releasing people," said Sharpless. "It is a ticking time bomb. Unless ICE acts fast, it will be responsible for the loss of life.”

“It’s alarming to me that detainees could have been exposed to COVID-19 but aren’t getting informed about it, especially when our client has underlying health issues that would make exposure to COVID-19 very serious," said Olivia Parise, a second-year law student in the Immigration Clinic. "No one should be detained for immigration purposes right now, but much less those who are medically vulnerable.”

The client is also a plaintiff in a Georgia lawsuit filed on Friday by the Southern Poverty Law Center asking for a temporary restraining order that mandates the release of detainees who have conditions that put them at risk of death if they contract COVID-19.

"Our client has been placed with others in a ‘quarantine unit’ in the facility for coronavirus-related concerns, but he has not been told whether he had contact with the Stewart officer who tested positive for COVID-19. Nor has he been given adequate information about who has been exposed,” said Meredith Hoffman, a second-year law student in the Immigration Clinic. “Our client is being expected to tolerate a constant risk of COVID-19 in a facility where he is locked inside. Our government cannot ignore the health concerns of our client and others like him amidst this pandemic."

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