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On April 20, 2020, the Honorable Jesus G. Bernal of the United States District Court for the Central District of California granted a preliminary injunction to a nationwide class of persons detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The injunction requires that ICE do more to protect detainees from the risks of COVID-19, including by freeing many of those who face the greatest risk of serious harm due to their preexisting medical conditions. The court’s decision cited and drew from a brief filed by Jenner & Block Partners Clifford W. Berlow, Michele L. Slachetka and Christopher J. Rillo and Associate Faaris (Fares) Akremi on behalf of 16 public health experts as amici curiae in support of the class plaintiffs.
The court summarized that “[t]he central question presented” by the detainee plaintiffs’ motion for injunctive relief “is whether the conditions in which [ICE] detainees are held during the pandemic likely violate the Constitution, and if so, what measures can and should be taken to ensure constitutionally permissible conditions of detention.” Fraihat v. U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, EDCV 19-1546 JGB (SHKx), slip op. at 1-2 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 20, 2020). In its decision, the court observed that the class plaintiffs were supported by the firm’s clients as amici curiae: 16 professors at American medical schools located across the nation, virtually all of whom are practicing emergency room and intensive care unit physicians. In their brief, the amici had taken the position that ICE’s lackluster infection-control guidance was inadequate to stop the highly contagious, life-threatening disease and contextualized the extreme risk faced by vulnerable people detained in close quarters with no meaningful opportunity to socially distance or practice the protective measures necessary to prevent illness. Further, they had maintained that the risk of an outbreak at an ICE detention facility was not just to the detainees, but instead to all those in neighboring communities whose access to medical care would be jeopardized if local hospitals become overrun with detainees infected with COVID-19.
Embracing these points and the underlying medical and scientific evidence, the court provisionally certified an injunctive class comprising “[a]ll people who are detained in ICE custody” and who suffer from at least one condition or disability—defined broadly in the court’s order—that “plac[es] them at heightened risk of severe illness and death upon contracting the COVID-19 virus.” id. at 21-22 & nn. 20, 21. The court then concluded that “[p]laintiffs have established they will suffer the irreparable harm of increased likelihood of severe illness and death if a preliminary injunction is not entered,” id. at 36, and that the public’s interest tips sharply in detainees’ favor—in large part because, as amici had explained, ICE’s “failure to protect the most vulnerable detainees could quickly overwhelm local hospitals with insufficient ICU” capacities, id. at 37.
The injunctive relief is broad. ICE is required to, nationwide: (1) identify all detainees with any of a broad range of “risk factors” that render them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19; (2) make timely, individualized custody determinations for those detainees, including consideration of whether each detainee herself is willing and able to be released from custody; and (3) issue a performance standard clearly defining “the minimum acceptable detention conditions” for at-risk detainees. id. at 38.