Tuesday, October 19, 2021
Oct. 19, 2021

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Detainees sue; Northwest immigration jail has positive test

Suit seeks release of about 100 at higher risk of illness


SEATTLE — Officials on Friday confirmed the first positive COVID-19 test at the Northwest detention center in Tacoma, in a detainee who had previously tested positive at another detention center and was being medically screened on arrival at the immigration jail. The development came just as immigrant rights advocates were going to court again in an attempt to free medically vulnerable detainees before any outbreak there.

In a lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union argued that it has become increasingly clear that there is no way to adequately protect people in custody from the virus.

In a filing in a separate case Friday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said a detainee tested positive during a medical intake screening and will remain medically segregated for two weeks. The agency said that according to the Pierce County health department, the detainee has recovered and is no longer infectious, but still had enough virus cells present to test positive.

The detainee had been at the Northwest detention center before being transferred to an immigration jail in Florence, Ariz., ahead of a deportation flight. While there he developed symptoms, tested positive on April 11, and was treated in isolation. Since his deportation flight was canceled, he was flown back up to Tacoma along with three other detainees, wrote Dr. Sheri Malakhova, clinical director for ICE Health Services Corps at the Northwest detention center.

When they arrived in Tacoma, none of the four had symptoms, but were nevertheless tested. The results came back with three negative and the one who had been ill still positive, but deemed recovered, Malakhova said.

‘I’m scared’

Over 750 immigration detainees at more than 40 detention facilities around the country have tested positive for the disease, a number that activists say may be an undercount.

“I’m scared. It’s going to happen in here,” Perla Martinez Acosta, 37, a detainee at the Tacoma detention center with a history of asthma, tuberculosis and other medical conditions, said Thursday in a phone interview. “I don’t want to die in here in this facility, away from my family.”

The lawsuit Friday was brought on behalf of four named detainees against ICE and the GEO Group, which runs the jail. It seeks class-action status that could bring about the release of roughly 100 people whom ICE officials have already identified as being at a higher risk of illness or death from the disease, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project Legal Director Matt Adams said.