Immigrants’ Rights Clinic Sues Homeland Security for Records about COVID-19 Spread in US Detention Centers

The Law School’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic filed a federal lawsuit in Los Angeles today demanding that the US Department of Homeland Security release public records regarding the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on immigrants in its custody. The clinic and its client, California-based binational legal service provider Al Otro Lado, say the agency violated the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by refusing to release information on detention facilities with large outbreaks of COVID-19.

“Public health experts have warned that immigrant detention centers are ‘a public health disaster waiting to happen,’ making DHS’s failure to provide information regarding protective measures being taken all the more egregious,” said Nicole Hallett, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, which is part of the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.

Added Nicole Ramos, who directs Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project: “DHS must be held accountable for running what have essentially become COVID-19 death camps. We cannot detain immigrants during a pandemic while refusing to implement critical protective measures or provide lifesaving medical care, and if DHS cannot do so, all detained immigrants must set them free. To do anything else is unconscionable.”

The clinic and Al Otro Lado are seeking information on the Otay Mesa Detention Center and Adelanto Detention Center, as well as all land ports of entry and Border Patrol stations in California. Otay Mesa is the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak of any ICE detention facility, while Adelanto is the subject of recent controversy as numerous detainees report serious illnesses resulting from exposure to toxic disinfectants, which detention center staff have allegedly used in retaliation for past complaints about COVID-19. Federal law requires DHS to make a determination on the FOIA request within 20 working days, but DHS failed to do so.

Al Otro Lado’s detained clients have documented numerous human rights violations inside California detention centers, including the failure to provide personal protective equipment, soap, and cleaning supplies.

“My friends are still in there, and they are afraid of dying,” a 21-year-old from Nicaragua recently released from Otay Mesa Detention Center told Al Otro Lado after winning his asylum case. “They are seeking asylum, they are not criminals.”

Detainees say it is difficult to socially distance as more immigrants are brought into the facilities every day. They also say that detainees who organize and make collective demands for PPE, soap, and cleaning products have suffered pepper spray attacks, solitary confinement, and physical violence.

“What happens behind detention center walls must be exposed,” said clinic student Kelly Geddes, ’20. “Lives are at stake, and DHS must be transparent about how it is protecting immigrants in its custody.”

COVID-19 Immigration