WASHINGTON, D.C. (WRIC) — As the number of coronavirus cases in Virginia continues to rise, immigration groups are demanding that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) release high-risk people being held at detention centers — “breeding grounds for disease,” according to a lawsuit filed Thursday.

The Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIPNLG) and the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) filed a lawsuit against ICE on behalf of nine people being held in Virginia detention facilities. The lawsuit is one of many being filed around the country.

“Immigration detention should not be a death sentence,” said Adina Appelbaum, Program Director of the Immigration Impact Lab at CAIR Coalition. “Our clients fear for their lives because they have medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable to serious illness or death if they’re infected. This violates their constitutional right to safety while in government custody. There is no other option — they need to be released immediately.”

The complaint alleges that the nine plaintiffs are being held in detention facilities in Virginia that are unsafe and put them at ‘imminent risk of contracting the lethal COVID-19 disease.’ The plaintiffs are:

  • Francois Toure, from Guinea, who suffers from asthma, borderline diabetes and major depressive disorder.
  • Sisira Kumara Kumaragamage Don, from Australia, who suffers from diabetes and hypertension.
  • Venacio Escobar Andasol, from El Salvador, is 65-years-old, which puts him at high risk for severe illness or death if he contracts coronavirus.
  • Alberto Hernandez, a transgender woman from Honduras, who suffers from asthma and takes five medications daily.
  • Ronaldo Lopez Cristales, from Guatemala, who suffers from severe Type II diabetes and high blood pressure.
  • Miguel Angel Chavez Ramos, from El Salvador, who suffers from severe Type II diabetes.
  • Melvin Castro, from El Salvador, who suffers from asthma, PTSD and depression.
  • Faustino Romero Aguilon, from Guatemala, who suffers from Type II diabetes and hypertension.
  • Ummy Ismail Mohamed, from Tanzania, who suffers from asthma, PTSD, severe depression disorder and anxiety.

“Both Farmville Detention Facility and Caroline Detention Facility remain woefully unprepared and incapable of taking necessary precautions to protect people in their custody against this life-threatening illness,” the complaint states.

ICE has not reported any confirmed COVID-19 cases at the Farmville or Caroline detention facilities, but the complaint claims that both facilities have people who are showing symptoms of the virus.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has enacted a stay-at-home order and recommends that people practice social distancing and wash their hands regularly. The lawsuit said that “such distancing and hygiene measures are impossible to achieve in crowded detention centers.”

Immigration advocates said in their lawsuit that people are being kept in close proximity with each other and that there is not enough soap or hand sanitizer at ICE detention centers.

ICE released a statement refuting these claims, saying that sick detainees are separated if sick or hospitalized. ICE said that soap is provided at showers and sinks and hand sanitizer is available for staff.

At the Farmville detention center, detainees are housed in groups– sometimes up to 85 people in a dorm, the lawsuit said.

“Bathrooms are used by about 70 people and are not sanitized or disinfected regularly or thoroughly. The dorms are not being disinfected or cleaned any differently by the facility,” the lawsuit claims.

A person at the Caroline Detention Facility was sent to the hospital to be tested for COVID-19, the lawsuit said. The dorm in which they resided was placed on quarantine and people were asked to stay six feet apart.

” [The] Defendants have subjected Plaintiffs to conditions of confinement that increase their risk of contracting COVID-19, for which there is no known vaccine, treatment, or cure,” according to the lawsuit.

Attorney Kristin Donovan with Legal Aid Justice Center told 8News that this lawsuit involves matters of life and death. They are hoping to have a resolution to this within the next few weeks.

On their website, ICE states that they have guidelines in place to prevent COVID-19 from reaching detention centers such as “providing detainees with soap for the shower and hand soap for sink handwashing, ICE provides alcohol-based sanitizer in visitor entrances, exits, waiting areas and to staff and detainees in the secure setting whenever possible.”

The website also says that ICE evaluates detainees who may be at higher risk of contacting the virus and released more than 160 individuals.

However, their COVID-19 guidelines do not specify how people being detained would be tested for COVID-19 or how many have already been tested for the virus.

“In addition to ensuring our clients’ safety, we hope that, as a result of this lawsuit, ICE will appreciate the urgency of the threat COVID-19 poses to vulnerable detainees and release other individuals with conditions that put them at high risk as well,” Legal Aid Justice Center Attorney Donovan told 8News.

The full complaint is available to read.

8News has reached out to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a comment.