HARRISBURG - In a new lawsuit filed today, 22 people who are being held in immigration detention in county facilities in Pennsylvania have asked a federal court for their release because they are at heightened risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19. This newest lawsuit comes on the heels of a ruling from a federal court in Harrisburg earlier this week that freed nearly a dozen people in immigration detention. The court found their detention to be an unconstitutional violation of their right to due process and to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Represented by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the national ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights and Prison Projects, and the law firm Dechert LLP, those filing the new action argue that the cramped and unsanitary conditions of the jails in York and Pike counties increase the likelihood that they could become infected and that their plight matches those who were previously ordered to be released.

All of the plaintiffs are at significantly elevated risk of becoming seriously ill or dying if they contract the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, because they are over age 65, have certain pre-existing health conditions, or both. All are held under civil law and are awaiting disposition of their immigration appeals. 

“The conditions that the court identified as being so problematic have only gotten worse,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “There is no public safety reason to hold our clients, but there is a significant public health interest in releasing them. Once coronavirus enters a jail, it will spread rapidly. And our clients will be in grave danger.”

Several of the people who have filed the new lawsuit are detained at the Pike County Correctional Facility. On Thursday, the Pike County commissioners announced that one person who is incarcerated, three staff, and one contract employee at the county jail have tested positive for COVID-19.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit describe conditions in which people are housed in close proximity to each other with as many as 60 people in a room with bunk beds that are an arm’s length apart in the York County facility. In the Pike County jail, detainees live with three people per cell, sharing a common toilet and sink. Meals are served with people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. People in detention do not have access to hand sanitizer and share a daily ration of soap. When the people who are detained clean the facilities, they are not given protective gear, exposing them to bodily fluids.

“ICE simply cannot minimize the contagion inside detention centers, which means that people who are older or have certain pre-existing conditions have a severe risk of getting very sick or dying,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The federal court has already ruled once that ICE’s inability to keep medically vulnerable people safe violates their constitutional rights, requiring that they be released. We agree.”

The lawsuit 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; Omar Jadwat and Michael Tan of the ACLU’s Immigrants Rights Project and Eunice Cho and David Fathi of the National Prison Project; and Will Sachse, Thomas Miller, Kelly Krellner, and Carla Graff of the law firm Dechert LLP. More information about the case, including a copy of the complaint, is available at aclupa.org/hope.