Souleymane Dembele, who has lived and raised his family in the United States for almost a decade, lives in fear for his life while detained on civil immigration charges at the McHenry County Adult Correctional Facility. Mr. Dembele suffers from medical conditions that place him at high risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. The ACLU of Illinois, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Faegre Drinker Biddle and Reach LLP filed suit today in a federal district court in Chicago on behalf of Mr. Dembele and another vulnerable immigrant against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and McHenry County officials. The suit seeks the immediate, temporary release of the plaintiffs from jail due to the threat to their health and lives posed by conditions promoting the spread of coronavirus.
“Being in this jail during the coronavirus crisis is a nightmare,” Mr. Dembele said from the jail in a statement. “I have not been able to sleep or care for myself because I am constantly afraid of being exposed to the virus. The conditions are not sanitary, and more than 60 people are regularly crammed into a common area, sharing tables and chairs. There is truly no social distancing.”
Mr. Dembele, who is under a doctor’s care for hypertension and pre-diabetes, awaits disposition of his immigration case, while another plaintiff with similar medical conditions is detained while waiting for deportation. Today’s filing includes a declaration from Dr. Homer Venters, who speaks to the public health risks and recognition that these medical conditions place people at risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. Both plaintiffs seek immediate, temporary release in order to protect themselves. Dr. Dora Schriro, corrections expert and former senior ICE official, supports their request for release with a declaration.
“COVID-19 is spreading through jails and prisons across the country like wildfire,” said Nusrat Jahan Choudhury, legal director for the ACLU of Illinois. “ICE’s continued detention of Mr. Dembele is recklessly endangering his life. Keeping medically vulnerable people locked up in immigration detention is potentially lethal, and violates our most basic principles of fairness and protection from cruel punishment.”
Recent news reports indicate that officers who work at the McHenry County facility share Mr. Dembele’s concerns about the lack of adequate sanitation, the failure of individuals to screen people entering the facility, and the lack of social distancing. McHenry County Jail is failing to meet the Center for Disease Control & Prevention guidelines for protecting against the spread of the coronavirus in detention facilities.
In recent weeks, federal courts across the country have granted release to immigrants in county jails in similar circumstances to Mr. Dembele. A court in Pennsylvania ordered the release of 33 medically vulnerable immigrants, and courts in California, Michigan, New York and New Jersey have taken similar action. These courts recognize that medically-vulnerable people should not be held during the pandemic in locations that are likely to realize an outbreak of the disease or are amidst an outbreak.
"This is the 18th suit like this that the ACLU has filed against ICE around the country,” added Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project. “For our clients, a COVID-19 infection likely means a death sentence. ICE must release them so they can practice social distancing and take other safety precautions. The moment is urgent — the health and wellbeing of detained immigrants, facility staff, and their communities are all at risk. Releasing people from detention is critical to flattening the curve and avoiding a humanitarian disaster."
Mr. Dembele also noted that the jail offers little guidance and help about how to avoid infection.
“It also is troubling that we are not being provided with appropriate information or equipment about how to protect ourselves from infection. We are not provided masks or gloves, even though we are not able to engage in social distancing,” Mr. Dembele added.
“No one should be forced to live like this.”