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Judge for now won’t release 2 immigrants held in Maryland jails with high coronavirus risks

A federal judge declined to order the release of two people from immigration detention facilities in Maryland after their lawyers argued that they are at a high risk of death or serious illness from a coronavirus infection.

But U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang said he would quickly consider a similar release motion from the two men if COVID-19 is reported within their detention centers or if the centers do not adequately test people with suspected symptoms of the virus.

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Chuang's ruling late Friday came in a lawsuit filed by immigrants' rights advocates. It follows other recent court orders to free people from immigration detention during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The two men who sued U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Maryland case have been held in civil detention at the Worcester County Detention Center and the Howard County Detention Center while waiting for their immigration cases to be resolved.

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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 last weekend.

Practicing "social distancing" and better hygiene is impossible in crowded detention centers, plaintiffs' lawyers argued.

"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 said.

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

An unidentified correctional officer takes cell phone pictures of Immigration advocates protesting the jailing of undocumented immigrants in close quarters at Howard County Detention Center in Jessup during the COVID-19 pandemic on Mar. 29. They protested by driving about two dozen cars in circles and blowing their horns outside the center. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam 3/29/20
An unidentified correctional officer takes cell phone pictures of Immigration advocates protesting the jailing of undocumented immigrants in close quarters at Howard County Detention Center in Jessup during the COVID-19 pandemic on Mar. 29. They protested by driving about two dozen cars in circles and blowing their horns outside the center. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam 3/29/20 (Kenneth K. Lam)

In denying the plaintiffs' temporary restraining order, Chaung wrote that he didn't find the threat of the new coronavirus in society as opposed to inside a detention center "inflicts unconstitutional punishment on high-risk detainees."

"To adopt petitioners' position would be to hold that the detention of any high-risk immigration detainee during the pandemic is necessarily unconstitutional, a position that the court is not presently prepared to adopt," he wrote.

But should COVID-19 cases turn up in the detention center or tests aren't made available, Chaung wrote that the plaintiffs likely would be successful in their case "based on deliberate indifference" to their serious medical needs.

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.

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.

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