WIRAC Class Action Reaches Settlement in Landmark COVID-19 Case for Immigrants

Sterling Law Building window depicting "Justice"

The parties in Savino v. Souza, the landmark class action lawsuit challenging unsafe conditions at the Bristol County House of Correction (BCHOC) in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, asked the federal judge hearing the case to approve a settlement agreement on April 6, 2021. If approved, the settlement would resolve one of the most successful class actions filed on behalf of detained individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic. The case dramatically reduced the number of people held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention at BCHOC — from 148 to seven — allowing dozens of civil immigration detainees to return to their families and safely quarantine at home.

Read the Settlement Agreement

The Plaintiff class is represented by Lawyers for Civil Rights, the law firm of WilmerHale, which has generously provided its legal services to the class on a pro bono basis, the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic (WIRAC) at Yale Law School, and Rights Behind Bars. The advocacy efforts of community organizations and individual attorneys also played a role in securing the outcome, according to those involved.

“Over the past year, our clients have proven what advocates have long known to be true: immigration detention is as needless as it is cruel, serving no purpose other than to line jailers’ pockets and deprive individuals of basic human rights. We are relieved that the government has agreed to allow class members released by the Court to remain home with their families, where they belong,” said Kayla Crowell ’22, a law student in WIRAC.

The class action lawsuit was filed in March 2020 and is believed to be the first lawsuit brought during the pandemic on behalf of all individuals in ICE detention at a facility, as opposed to only individuals with certain medical risk factors. The case brought ICE and BCHOC officials’ life-threatening mismanagement of the pandemic to the attention of U.S. District Court Judge William G. Young, according to those involved. That effort proved to be successful at protecting class members’ health and well-being and served as a blueprint for similar class actions across the country.

During the course of the litigation:

  • The Court granted class certification, allowing the action to proceed on behalf of all individuals held in civil immigration detention at BCHOC. These individuals were not held on criminal charges but rather solely because of their immigration status.
  • The Court determined that BCHOC was likely to be found deliberately indifferent to class members’ health and safety needs due to “cavernous holes in the government’s mitigation strategy” during the pandemic, including a failure to reduce overcrowding, a lack of testing, and inadequate contact tracing.
  • The Court released 43 individuals on bail, allowing them to safely quarantine at home during the pendency of the lawsuit, instead of in the unsafe and overcrowded conditions at BCHOC, according to the groups representing the class. During the litigation, others paid bond set by Immigration Judges, obtained relief in their immigration cases, or were voluntarily released.
  • The Court granted a preliminary injunction, barring ICE from admitting new individuals to detention without Court approval, which maximized and sustained population reduction. The Court also ordered that testing be made available to class members and BCHOC staff.

The settlement announced on April 6, 2021, if approved by the Court, will:

  • Secure the continued release of those on bail. The fact that these class members have successfully remained under ICE supervision, free of detention, according to those involved, 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.”
  • Secure the release of six additional individuals.
  • Provide the remaining seven detained individuals the option of transferring to another New England ICE facility.

“The settlement is a welcome resolution to our case and highlights the continuing need to reform immigration law and policy. We join Massachusetts AG Maura Healey in urging the Biden administration to terminate all contracts between ICE and Bristol County to prevent future violations of immigrants’ rights,” said Grace Choi ’22, a law student in WIRAC.

In the documents filed on April 6, 2021, the parties have jointly asked the Court to preliminarily approve the settlement and to set a Final Fairness Hearing within 28 days to grant final approval.

About the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School
Students in the Worker & Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic (WIRAC) at the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School represent immigrants, low-wage workers, and their organizations in labor, immigration, civil rights, and other matters. The clinic handles cases in Immigration Court, the Board of Immigration Appeals, U.S. District Courts and Courts of Appeals, and before state agencies, legislatures, and courts.

About Lawyers for Civil Rights
Lawyers for Civil Rights fosters equal opportunity and fights discrimination on behalf of people of color and immigrants. They engage in creative and courageous legal action, education, and advocacy in collaboration with law firms and community partners. Lawyers for Civil Rights focus on impact areas that represent the front lines in today’s battle for equality and justice.

About Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP
WilmerHale provides legal representation across a comprehensive range of practice areas that are critical to the success of its clients. The law firm’s leading Intellectual Property, Litigation/Controversy, Regulatory and Government Affairs, Securities and Financial Services, and Transactional Departments participate in some of the highest-profile legal and policy matters. With a staunch commitment to public service, the firm is renowned as a leader in pro bono representation. WilmerHale is 1,000 lawyers strong with 13 offices in the United States, Europe and Asia.

About Rights Behind Bars
Rights Behind Bars is a civil rights organization that represents incarcerated individuals challenging their conditions of confinement in trial and appellate courts. RBB works to combat the current state of incarceration in the US and to address the systematic resource imbalance that leads to the development of bad law on conditions in prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers.