Attorneys for immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in a privately run detention center in Elizabeth, NJ, filed a class-action lawsuit on Friday demanding the immediate release of everyone held in the facility.
The lawsuit has four lead plaintiffs, including a Congolese asylum seeker jailed after he arrived in New York City in February, and a Filipino mother with a blood condition held by ICE after being released by police on a minor drug charge.
But attorneys are asking a judge to include for free all of the 114 people being held at the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility, a former warehouse operated by the publicly-traded company CoreCivic, saying everyone there is at risk of death due to COVID-19.
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Already one officer at the jail died from the virus, CoreCivic announced this week, with another 17 employees testing positive—not including those who had the virus, recovered, and returned to work. At least 18 detainees have contracted the virus, according to ICE.
The suit alleges that the close proximity of beds and other unhealthy conditions make the men and women there susceptible to the illness. Detainees have told their attorneys that there is limited cleaning supplies and disposable masks that they must use for at least two weeks. The $1-a-day cleaning jobs are no longer being offered to detainees.
If not releases, attorneys hope a judge will at least order expedited bail hearings and bar ICE from admitting new people into the facility. A similar class-action lawsuit in Massachusetts led to hearings and a significant number of releases.
Three county jails in New Jersey also hold immigrant detainees through contracts with ICE. Attorneys say getting information about testing, positive cases, and conditions at those jails is far easier than at the private facility in Elizabeth.
A spokesperson for CoreCivic, Ryan Gustin, said the company does not comment on lawsuits. “CoreCivic is working hard to protect our employees, those entrusted to our care, and our communities during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Gustin said in an email.
ICE did not return a request for comment.
Attorneys for CoreCivic detainees say they have been unable to even get medical records for their clients, and their contact with them has been dramatically limited. A hotline for detainees to contract advocates with the group First Friends of New York and New Jersey has been shut down.
The suit was filed in federal court in Newark by attorneys from the Immigrant Defense Project, American Friends Service Committee, and New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic.
“It has been extremely difficult for us to obtain any information about the conditions in an accurate way,” said one of attorneys, Leila Kang, of the Immigrant Defense Project. “There’s no real way to know who is really at risk. We think everyone is at risk.”
One of the plaintiffs, Rizza Jane Guanao Aganan, is a 30-year-old mother of two from the Philippines. “She’s extremely scared and extremely horrified by what’s happening at the detention center,” said attorney Joelle Lingat of the American Friends Service Committee. “She very powerfully explains how living together [with other immigrant women] and surviving through the horrific conditions that they are enduring together has created a bond between them, where she would regret it the rest of her life if she didn’t do all she could to advocate for all of the people she is confined there with.”
CoreCivic has long been accused of human rights abuses inside its facilities. Earlier this month, WNYC’s The Takeaway and The Intercept reported how detainees at a CoreCivic facility in Georgia were pepper-sprayed by the company’s officers, who then bragged about their use of force on social media.
On Saturday, an activist group called Doctors For Camp Closure will hold a 24-hour vigil at the Elizabeth Detention Center. They say social distancing is impossible inside detention, and all detainees must be released for their safety.