National health experts say U.S. immigration officials are violating federal guidelines by grouping inmates together by the hundreds if they have COVID-19 symptoms or have been exposed to the coronavirus, according to a lawsuit filed in Miami federal court Monday.
The lawsuit — filed by the University of Miami’s immigration law clinic, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Rapid Defense Network in New York, the Legal Aid Service of Broward County and Prada Urizar, a private Miami law firm, against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Attorney General — seeks the release of detainees in three South Florida detention centers, citing health experts who say the practice of “cohorting” — segregating affected inmates in separate areas — is actually spreading the coronavirus “like wildfire” among detainees and staff.
The lawsuit, which seeks the release of detainees at the Krome Processing Center in Miami-Dade, the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach and the Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven, was filed less than a week after a healthy Krome detention center inmate, with no underlying health conditions, was released by ICE.
Miami U.S. District Judge Kathleen M. Williams ordered ICE to explain what the federal agency is doing to protect detainees inside from catching or spreading the virus. The case was ultimately dismissed after ICE released the detainee, Boyd Campbell, and submitted a sworn statement by Liana J. Castano, the acting director in charge of the Krome facility.
In her statement last Wednesday, Castano noted that at the time, at least 238 detainees had been grouped together in an isolated area. Each of the detainees were confirmed to have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus.
Castano explained that the agency has medical and mental healthcare staffers on site and that all detainees coming into the facility are having their temperature taken by security guards before being admitted. Detainees are also being asked if they have traveled to a COVID-19 hot spot in the past 14 days, and if they’ve had any contact with anyone that has tested positive.
If the answer is yes, the detainee is isolated for 14 days with others who also answered yes, a practice that the agency calls “cohorting.” Sick detainees with coronavirus symptoms are not being tested, according to Krome employees and detainees interviewed by the Miami Herald.
The chances of detainees being tested for coronavirus inside the Florida detention centers are slim, federal sources say. “The only way someone will get tested is if they’re over 65 or basically dying,” one ICE prosecutor said.
As of Monday, at least two detainees and two security guards at Krome have tested positive for the coronavirus. Federal sources told the Miami Herald that an additional 60 officers have been sent home, many of them waiting for virus test results. A few detainees out of the facilities roughly 600 are also awaiting test results inside Krome.
Federal judges across the country have ordered the urgent release of detainees, citing the pressing health risks created by detaining groups of people during the pandemic. As recently as last week, a federal judge in Massachusetts ordered ICE to release more than 40 detained individuals because of the COVID-19 threat, calling the “the situation...urgent and unprecedented,” noting that “a reduction in the number of people who are held in custody is necessary.”
Each of the three South Florida detention centers has either confirmed cases of the virus or has groups of individuals herded together in “cohort quarantine” because they have been identified by staff as being exposed to the virus.
Under CDC Guidelines — which detention centers are required to follow — people exposed to COVID-19 should be put in individual, not group, quarantine: “Facilities should make every possible effort to quarantine close contacts of COVID-19 cases individually.” Cohort quarantine “should only be practiced if there are no other available options.” The CDC says “cohorting multiple quarantined close contacts of a COVID-19 case could transmit COVID-19 from those who are infected to those who are uninfected.”
Though federal immigration officials have said ICE would curtail arrests of non-criminals during the coronavirus pandemic, new non-criminal migrants are still being picked up and taken to Krome, Glades, and BTC without being tested for COVID-19, two federal ICE prosecutors confirmed to the Herald.
According to sources inside Miami-Dade and Broward County Corrections, ICE is also continuing to issue “detainers” to local jails, directing them to hold undocumented immigrants whose criminal custody has ended. ICE then transports these people to Krome, Glades, and BTC, increasing their already large populations.