On March 27, 2020, Maria Alejandra Celimen Savino and Julio Cesar Medeiros Neves, two immigrants detained at Bristol County House of Correction in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, filed suit on behalf of themselves and a class of all other persons held by ICE at Bristol. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, sought the emergency release of each member of the class because of the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and a ban on any new ICE admissions to the jail. Petitioners are represented by the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, Lawyers for Civil Rights, WilmerHale, and Rights Behind Bars.
All those in civil immigration detention at Bristol were at imminent risk of COVID-19 infection. This risk was exacerbated by the cruel and inhumane conditions to which the government has subjected them: jail staff who report to work with coronavirus symptoms, and new ICE admissions transferred into the facility amidst the contagion without meaningful medical testing or screening. Even after a recently-arrived individual fell severely ill, Bristol County and ICE failed to provide adequate sanitizer, disinfectant, or toilet paper. The immigrants bringing this case were trapped, and subject to imminent infection, illness and death.
Judge William G. Young provisionally certified five subclasses and began considering each person individually for admission to bail pending the litigation. On April 8, 2020, Judge Young issued an opinion certifying a class of all civil immigration detainees held at Bristol County. The Court rejected the government’s assertion that immigrants in detention cannot bring this lawsuit because no COVID-19 cases have yet been found among the population. The Court explained, "We are in the midst of a pandemic unprecedented in our lifetime… [C]ompelling issues of individual, institutional, and community health preclude the luxury of a stay so counsel can 'consider their appellate options.'”
Judge Young subsequently granted a preliminary injunction, finding that “where life hangs upon a carefully drawn line, [the government] opt[s] for near blanket incarceration. That is evidence of deliberate indifference.” The Court ordered testing of individuals and staff, barred new admissions to immigration detention at Bristol, and prohibited transfers out absent a negative test for COVID. In denying a government motion to reconsider, Judge Young characterized the government’s account as “fanciful” and compared its refusal to de-densify, test, or contact trace as “like a NASCAR driver who spurns a seatbelt and helmet because she plans not to crash.” Judge Young ordered the release of 43 individuals on bail pending the resolution of the lawsuit.
Separately, the government filed a notice appealing the bail orders and the class certification to the First Circuit. Class members denied bail filed a cross-appeal, as well as a parallel mandamus petition. The government withdrew its appeal, and the First Circuit denied the mandamus petition and stayed decision on the cross-appeal pending settlement talks.
On June 11, 2020, the clinic and LCR submitted a complaint to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and Dartmouth Board of Health on behalf of eight community organizations, regarding ongoing violations of state public health statutes and regulations. This led to additional inspections and findings of violations at Bristol.
After a period of discovery, the parties agreed to pursue mediation with the assistance of Chief Magistrate Judge Page Kelley. On April 6, 2021, the parties asked Judge Young to approve a joint settlement agreement that would:
- Secure the continued freedom of those the Court released on bail.
- Secure the release of additional individuals.
- Provide the remaining seven detained individuals the option of transferring to another New England ICE facility.
If approved, the settlement would resolve one of the most successful class actions filed on behalf of detained individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic. As of April 6, the case has reduced the population of Bristol from 148 when the lawsuit was filed to just seven today. Not all of those released have a health risk that falls within a CDC high-risk category, making this one of the first cases in the country where a court has not relied on individualized medical risk when making humanitarian release determinations. That these class members have returned home to their families and communities, free of detention, demonstrates the accuracy of Judge Young’s statement, in ruling on the Preliminary Injunction, that “it would appear we are spending millions of our national treasure to lock up thousands of people who might better be released . . . without impairing the safety of our citizens or the operations of our government.”