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Judge in Maryland weighs release of two detained immigrants because they are at high risk for the coronavirus

SILVER SPRING — Immigrants’ rights advocates on Thursday urged a federal judge to order the release of two people from Maryland immigration detention facilities, saying their medical conditions carry a high risk of death or serious illness from a coronavirus infection.

U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang didn’t immediately rule after hearing arguments from attorneys for the federal government and the two men who sued U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Chuang said he would issue a written decision “as soon as possible.”

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Judges in other states have agreed to free people from ICE detention during the COVID-19 pandemic. Chuang asked plaintiffs’ attorney Sirine Shebaya if a ruling in this case could benefit any ICE detainee who has a serious medical condition. She said the lawsuit only seeks the release of these two men and that each detainee’s case must be evaluated individually.

The two plaintiffs in the Maryland case have been held in civil detention at the Worcester County Detention Center and the Howard County Detention Center while awaiting resolution of their immigration cases.

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Practicing “social distancing” and better hygiene is impossible in crowded detention centers, plaintiffs’ lawyers claim. “Even with the measures ICE has purported to take to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in its facilities, immigration detention centers are a hotbed for spread of the virus,” the March 24 lawsuit says.

Neither Maryland detention center has a single confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case, Justice Department attorney Vincent Vaccarella said Thursday. A “purely speculative risk” of contracting COVID-19 doesn’t entitle the plaintiffs to immediate release, Vaccarella said in a court filing this week.

Federal authorities say they are taking precautions to protect inmates and staff. The judge asked Vaccarella whether the facilities could or will do more to help prevent the medically vulnerable detainees from an infection. Vaccarella said he didn’t know.

“We’re not supposed to wait until someone gets sick,” the judge said during a hearing held by video conference.

The Maryland plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Maryland.

One of the plaintiffs, a 52-year-old citizen of El Salvador, has diabetes. The other, a 54-year-old citizen of Guatemala, has hypertension and prostate problems.

They were among more than 35,000 people who were in ICE custody as of Saturday.

Similar lawsuits have been filed in other states, including California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington state, according to the ACLU.

Earlier this week, federal judges in California and Pennsylvania ordered ICE to release several detainees who sued.

“Our Constitution and laws apply equally to the most vulnerable among us, particularly when matters of public health are at issue. This is true even for those who have lost a measure of their freedom,” U.S. District Judge John Jones III wrote in the Pennsylvania case.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and be life-threatening.

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