Thousands of asylum seekers locked up in U.S. immigration centers in the Deep South should be released immediately to protect them from the coronavirus as long as the individuals don’t pose a danger to the community, two civil rights groups told a federal judge.
In a filing on Monday in Washington, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana asked for a court order that would force U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to grant humanitarian parole based on individual assessments including flight risk.
The filing was made in a 2019 class-action lawsuit challenging a blanket parole-denial policy by ICE’s New Orleans field office. The groups claim the policy “has left thousands of asylums seekers languishing in ICE prisons throughout the Deep South despite having followed asylum procedures at the border and having met the legal criteria for release.”
The groups allege in their Monday filing that ICE has shown itself to be “woefully incapable” of providing safe and sanitary conditions that would stave off an outbreak, while experts have advised that prisons, jails and other crowded and confined spaces can act like petri dishes for the virus.
Similar allegations and requests have been made in courts across the U.S., where more than 4,000 people have died from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. ICE’s website says it’s working with other federal agencies on a pandemic response aimed at “keeping everyone safe, and helping detect and slow the spread of the virus.”
The groups say 90% of asylum seekers detained at the U.S. border used to be released on parole, but that the number plummeted under the Trump administration’s tougher stance on immigration in violation of a binding 2009 policy. ICE’s New Orleans office, which covers Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, has the lowest release rate, according to the suit.