Advocates seek release of ICE-detained immigrants who are most vulnerable to COVID-19

By KYW Newsradio 1060

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UPDATED: March 25, 10 a.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking the release of more than a dozen detainees housed in Pennsylvania facilities due to the spread of coronavirus. Advocates are demanding Gov. Tom Wolf to step in.

The group filed a lawsuit on behalf of 13 elderly or ill individuals who are currently detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Pennsylvania prisons, located in York, Clinton and Pike. 

“People are having all sorts of symptoms that suggest that they are infected, and no one is being tested,” said Vic Walczak, ACLU legal director.

They want the court to issue an emergency order, arguing that those individuals are at a heightened risk of dying if they contract COVID-19, and keeping them detained in such facilities violates their constitutional rights.

“At Pike, you have three people living in a cell that’s the size of a parking space,” Walczak said. “At Clinton, you have 50 people in a room, and when they roll over, they touch somebody else.”

Given the living conditions, Walczak claims it is impossible for ICE to maintain CDC guidelines for social distancing and sanitization. 

On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security reported that a Mexican immigrant detained in the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey tested positive for COVID-19.  

Meanwhile, the Shut Down Berks Coalition held a virtual press conference on Tuesday, demanding Gov. Wolf to use his executive power to free the families housed in the ICE facility in Berks County.  

“Berks County family detention center — commonly referred to as a ‘baby jail’ — is no place for families to be detained, much less during a global pandemic,” said Dr. Elana Levites-Agababa, a pediatrician who is part of the coalition. 

The group has worked for months to shut down the Berks County facility, which houses immigrant families seeking asylum. They claim nearly 60 staff members go in and out of the detention center, leaving immigrant families — including young children and the elderly — vulnerable to COVID-19. She echoed Walczak, saying there is not enough space to practice social distancing, and sanitization is impossible with limited access to hand sanitizer and soap.

“Berks lacks appropriate housing for people who might require quarantining for COVID-19 exposure or isolation because of symptoms, creating the perfect conditions for a COVID-19 outbreak,” Agababa added.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizen Coalition are part of the group urging action by the governor. 

"ICE does not comment on pending litigation. All FRCs have hand sanitizer available and are regularly conducting preventative cleanings of common areas. ICE has also modified its intake criteria and procedures for Dilley and Karnes and has currently suspended new intakes at Berks Family Residential Center," ICE officials said.

There’s no word yet from the Wolf administration or Berks County officials.