HARRISBURG - Lawyers representing 13 people freed from immigration detention by a federal court ruling in March have asked the court to expand the reach of that order by converting it into a class action lawsuit. In the new filing, attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the ACLU’s National Prison Project and Immigrants Rights Project, and the law firm Dechert LLP have amended their original complaint to add 11 new people seeking their release from jails in York, Clinton, and Pike counties and to define the class of people impacted by the ruling as anyone in immigration detention who is at heightened risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19 due to age or an underlying medical condition.
“It’s increasingly clear to us that federal immigration authorities are not serious about preventing the spread of COVID-19 in county jails where our clients are held,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “In all of the facilities, people who are detained cannot physically distance from each other. And they are still not being rationed enough personal hygiene items, including soap. The court has to act because ICE will not.”
On March 31, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III issued a ruling in the case, Thakker v. Doll, that the ACLU now seeks to amend. That ruling freed 10 of the original plaintiffs, after three had previously been released by ICE.
In the amended complaint, counsel for the plaintiffs state that housing arrangements have not changed, with people in detention at the jails in York and Clinton counties living dormitory style with 50-70 people housed together in a single room in which bunk beds are placed within a few feet of each other. Meanwhile, officials at the Pike County Correctional Facility are still housing two or three people in each cell. At York County Prison, a woman with symptoms similar to COVID-19 was housed with other women for six days before receiving medical attention, the complaint states. Now, multiple women at the jail are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, but none have been tested.
“Immigration officials’ refusal to take essential public health measures to protect older and other high-risk detainees from contracting the virus places them in grave danger,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “This mortal threat makes their detention unconstitutional, thereby necessitating our clients’ release as soon as possible.”
The plaintiffs argue that their detention and the risk in which it puts them of contracting COVID-19 are in violation of their Fifth Amendment right to due process. They are asking the court to free all people in immigration detention in the three facilities who are over the age of 45 and those who have one of several multiple health conditions that place them at heightened risk of serious illness or death.
The amended complaint was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The plaintiffs are represented by Witold Walczak, Vanessa Stine, Erika Nyborg-Burch, and Muneeba Talukder of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; Eunice Cho, David Fathi, Stephen Kang, Omar Jadwat, Michael Tan, and Cecillia Wang of the ACLU; and Will Sachse, Thomas Miller, Carla Graff, and Kelly Krellner of Dechert LLP. More information, including a copy of the amended complaint, is available at aclupa.org/Thakker.