Update: The attorneys who filed the lawsuit detailed in this story announced Wednesday that eight of the 14 petitioners were released within 24 hours.
“Yesterday, our clients were trapped in a cage that stripped them of any autonomy over their personal safety and wellbeing,” Laura Lunn of the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network said in a prepared statement. “Today, these women are finally able to protect themselves. It is astonishing the difference a day – and a federal lawsuit – makes.”
On Tuesday, the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN), law firm Arnold & Porter and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIPNLG) filed suit in Denver district court, demanding operators of the Aurora Contract Detention Facility release “14 medically-vulnerable people currently held in civil immigration detention” from the immigration prison. The filers fear what may happen if detainees contract COVID-19.
“Several of the petitioners are transgender women living with HIV, and all the petitioners have serious medical vulnerabilities that make them especially susceptible to serious illness or death should they contract COVID-19,” a press release from the attorneys reads. “The ICE detention facility in Aurora, Colorado, has failed to put in place CDC-recommended preventive measures, and is unable to provide adequate medical care in the event of an outbreak at the facility.”
Timothy Macdonald, co-council on the case, said similar petitions elsewhere in the U.S. have been decided in as little as a week. He hopes to see the same for this decision.
According to a recent audit compiled by Congressman Jason Crow’s office, 77 people inside the facility were “cohorted/quarantined due to sickness” as of April 6th. Only two have been tested for COVID-19, according to the audit, and both tested negative.
A few weeks ago, at least 25 people were released en masse after two employees there were diagnosed with the virus, though officials said they had no contact with detainees. Immigration activists have been driving around Capitol Hill, holding in-car protests to advocate for more people to be released.
RMIAN lawyers began filing humanitarian parole requests for their clients at the facility when the outbreak began. Laura Lunn, an attorney with the group, said there are still as many as 100 pending requests.
The lead plaintiff in the case is Jennifer Leaford Codner, who is described as a “54-year-old transgender woman from Jamaica” who has been held in Aurora for two years as she waits for an asylum claim to process.
“If the virus befalls one person here, it will befall everyone here,” she wrote in a prepared statement sent to media outlets. “We are at the mercy of this place, there is no way to ensure our own health.”
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson told Denverite that the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation as a matter of policy. But she said ICE has “convened a working group” of medical specialists and “detention experts” to hone their response to the virus, adding that a “lack of comment” to this specific matter “should not be construed as agreement with or stipulation to any of the allegations.”
According to the agency, the number of people held by the agency, nationwide, dropped by “4,000 individuals since March 1, 2020 with a more than 60 percent decrease in book-ins when compared to this time last year.”
This story has been updated. The date of Crow’s audit was corrected to say it dates to April 6th.