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Coronavirus concerns trigger lawsuit aimed at freeing migrant families from detention centers

At the Berks County detention center, about 40 people are currently held. Families sleep six to a room and social distancing is impossible.

The Berks detention center, located in Leesport, Pa., as it appeared earlier this month.
The Berks detention center, located in Leesport, Pa., as it appeared earlier this month.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

The federal government is recklessly confining thousands of immigrant families in the Berks County detention center and two other Texas facilities where conditions are ripe for a coronavirus outbreak, a new lawsuit asserts.

Hundreds of families have signs of COVID-19, including coughs, fever, and shortness of breath, but are not being tested or getting medicine for their symptoms, the lawsuit alleges.

It asks that the mothers, fathers and children in the nation’s three family detention centers be released immediately, the government having failed to take even minimal precautions “for the all too foreseeable catastrophe.” The suit is filed by ALDEA-The People’s Justice Center in Reading, the Rapid Defense Network in New York, and the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, in San Antonio, Texas.

Besides Berks, the government holds families at the Karnes County and Dilley city facilities in Texas. All the Berks families have close relations to whom they could be released, their attorneys say.

“Their placement in family detention has created a dangerous situation that imminently threatens their lives, the lives of those in the surrounding communities, and the general public should a COVID-19 crisis spark,” says the suit, filed against officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Attorney General’s Office.

The Department of Justice declined comment. DHS did not respond to a request.

About 40 people are currently held at Berks, where families sleep six to a room. Social distancing is impossible, the suit says, as at the larger Texas facilities, where detainees are surrounded by dozens of people and hundreds share bedrooms, bathrooms, and communal spaces.

The suit says families have gotten no instructions on hygiene, nor hand sanitizer, protective masks or gloves. Staff working in the common areas and cafeterias do not use masks or gloves or follow the 6-foot social-distancing rule. They still shake hands with others, the suit says.