2 virus-vulnerable detainees released from immigration jail in Tacoma

SEATTLE -- Two detainees with health conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19 have been released from an immigration jail in Tacoma, their attorneys said Thursday.

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington sued March 16 on behalf of nine detainees with underlying conditions, saying they’d face special danger if the coronavirus spreads in the jail.

A federal judge last week declined to immediately order their release, but after the attorneys filed another request on Tuesday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released two of the seven from its Northwest detention center.

Matt Adams, legal director of the Immigrant Rights Project, said it’s not clear why those two were released while the others remain in custody.

ICE did not immediately return an email seeking comment. U.S. District Judge James L. Robart has ordered the agency to respond to the immigration rights groups’ latest filing by Monday.

The released detainees are Alfredo Espinoza Garza, a Mexican citizen who previously had to be hospitalized for a heart attack he suffered while in detention, and Leonidas Plutin Hernandez, a 59-year-old Cuban with high blood pressure, Adams said.

Concern has been mounting nationwide over what outbreaks in jails and prisons would mean for inmates and surrounding communities alike, as patients from large outbreaks behind bars could overwhelm hospitals. Several jurisdictions have taken steps to reduce jail populations. In Washington, attorneys have asked the state Supreme Court to order the release of older imates, those with underlying health conditions and those within 18 months of their release date.

In his order denying release last week, Robart said he was aware of the gravity and rapidly evolving nature of the COVID-19 crisis, but that there is no evidence of an outbreak at the privately run, 1,575-bed jail. Nor had the plaintiffs shown that ICE’s precautions, which include suspending visitation and assessing detainees for symptoms, are inadequate, he said.

Since then, the groups said, circumstances have changed: The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, citing the risk of the disease, ordered the release of a detainee pending a final decision on her case; two infectious disease experts retained by the Department of Homeland Security wrote a letter to Congress warning of the “tinderbox” conditions for the virus in immigration detention facilities; and ICE has had confirmed COVID cases among an employee and detainee in New Jersey.