SAN ANTONIO, TX – Civil rights groups are suing the federal government seeking the release of medically vulnerable immigrants held at three Texas detention centers, according to a lawsuit filed today.

MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) and the Texas Civil Rights Project, Carlos Moctezuma Garcia of Garcia & Garcia Attorneys at Law, P.L.L.C., and attorney Javier Maldonado, filed a writ of habeas corpus petition and complaint on behalf of three people detained at immigration detention facilities in South Texas. Each plaintiff suffers from health problems that make him especially vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“Our client and other detainees with serious health conditions should not have to risk their lives to seek immigration relief,” stated Nina Perales, MALDEF VP of Litigation and counsel in the case.  “Detention centers cannot constitutionally expose the people in their care to grave risk of illness and death.”

At issue are the conditions inside the detention centers. The immigrants describe lax measures to prevent the spread of the virus, including receiving little or no medical care for their existing conditions, being housed in crowded dormitories, receiving insufficient soap or hand sanitizer, and being forced to interact with guards who do not wear gloves or face masks, even while handing out food to detainees, according to the lawsuit.

“It’s impossible to socially distance in these ICE facilities,” said Efrén C. Olivares, Legal Director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program at Texas Civil Rights Project. “So, by holding our clients at their discretion, ICE is asking for an outbreak that will endanger the lives of the entire community, in areas that are already starting out with fewer healthcare resources.”

The plaintiffs include:

  • A 62-year-old asylum and adjustment applicant from Mexico with Type 1 diabetes and hypertension who requires insulin and other medications and who is being held at Webb County Detention Center in Laredo.
  • A 78-year-old green card holder originally from Mexico with hypertension who is being held at Port Isabel Service Processing Center in Los Fresnos, Texas.
  • A 28-year-old asylum applicant from Cuba who suffers from severe asthma and who is being held at the Rio Grande Detention Center in Laredo.

“My client is scared. He asks me who would take care of his family and his disabled children if he dies as a result of the coronavirus,” says Carlos Moctezuma Garcia of Garcia & Garcia Attorneys at Law, “This isn't something that a 40-year lawful permanent resident should wonder.”

Attorneys for the men argue that federal officials are violating the constitutional rights of the detainees by failing to ensure the Texas detention centers follow recent guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and by providing lax medical care.

The lawsuit names officials at U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE), and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as defendants. Additional defendants include wardens and officers of Webb County Detention Center, and the Rio Grande Detention Center, both in Laredo, as well as the Port Isabel Detention Center, in Los Fresnos.

The suit claims that authorities’ failure to take steps to protect detainees from the coronavirus violates the immigrants’ rights under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Under the Fifth Amendment, the government must provide medical care and protect detainees from injury.

Attorneys also argue that conditions at the facilities violate a federal law that requires that individuals with disabilities not be barred from participating in a program that receives federal funding.  The lawsuit maintains that by exposing medically vulnerable detainees to the risk of contracting COVID-19, federal officials are failing to provide reasonable accommodations to the detainees because of their disabilities in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

According to ICE, there are as many as 72 people in its custody who had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Nineteen detention facility staffers have been diagnosed with the virus.

Read the complaint HERE.