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U.S. judge orders release of 10 immigrants in Pennsylvania, calling ICE incapable of protecting them from coronavirus behind bars

“It would be heartless and inhumane not to recognize [the] petitioner’s plight,” U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III wrote. “Should we fail to [order their release] … we will be party to an unconscionable and possibly barbaric result.”

The immigration detention center in York County Prison in York, Pa.
The immigration detention center in York County Prison in York, Pa.Read moreJose F. Moreno / File Photograph

A federal judge in Harrisburg ordered the immediate release Tuesday of 10 immigrants from detention centers across Pennsylvania, saying authorities have not taken adequate measures to protect them from the threat of a coronavirus outbreak behind bars.

The 10, from countries across the globe, are all being all held in county jails that contract with ICE, and face deportation proceedings or have pending asylum claims. They appear to be one of the largest groups of immigrant detainees in the nation subject to a court-ordered release since the pandemic’s start.

Each has an underlying medical condition that lawyers with the ACLU of Pennsylvania said put them more at risk should a virus outbreak erupt behind bars. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement to free them on personal recognizance bonds from facilities in York, Clinton, and Pike Counties before the end of the day Tuesday.

“It would be heartless and inhumane not to recognize [the] petitioners’ plight,” the judge wrote. “Should we fail to [order their release] … we will be party to an unconscionable and possibly barbaric result.”

Jones’ order comes amid increasing alarm from public health advocates, public defenders, and even some prosecutors, who warn that the close quarters of jails, prisons, and detention centers make proper hygiene and social distancing impossible. It follows a similar decision Thursday from a judge in Manhattan who released 10 immigrants awaiting court proceedings in detention facilities there.

Philadelphia and New Jersey have both launched efforts to thin their jail populations of low-level nonviolent offenders and those who fall within the highest risk categories for contracting the disease.

ICE has resisted calls for similar efforts, arguing that it can safely and effectively quarantine detainees who develop symptoms to prevent outbreaks.

Still, in a recent letter to Congress, two medical experts with the Department of Homeland Security described the nation’s overcrowded immigration lockups as a “tinderbox” waiting to explode with infection. In the Pennsylvania facilities, immigrants are housed at 60 to 70 to a pod and share four to six infrequently cleaned toilets and showers.

Attorneys for ICE and the county jails argued in the Harrisburg case that none of the immigrants seeking release had standing to bring a claim because they had not yet contracted COVID-19 or suffered any other harm.

Jones rejected that notion, noting that the agency was effectively arguing that detainees’ lives must be put at risk for disease before it would agree to act.

“It does not even seem that ICE is providing detainees with proper information on how they can combat the virus on their own,” he wrote. “Troublingly, some facilities seem to have shut off detainee access to news outlets, thereby preventing the [detainee] population from informing themselves on best practices to prevent transmission.”

In his order, Jones gave ICE until next Tuesday to show why his temporary order releasing the 10 migrants should not be made permanent. In the meantime, he said, the agency could use other methods to ensure they show up for their court dates, including remote monitoring and required in-person check-ins.

ICE had released three additional plaintiffs before Tuesday’s court decision. The agency did not return requests for comment.