Judge orders COVID-19 testing for ICE detainees

Orders everyone to be tested "from the sheriff on down"

DECLARING THAT A lawsuit filed on behalf of immigration detainees was likely to succeed in demonstrating “deliberate indifference” to their risk of contracting COVID-19, a federal judge ordered coronavirus testing for all federal detainees being housed at the Bristol County Jail.

“I require everyone be tested, from the sheriff on down,” said US District Court Judge William Young, whose order included roughly 600 staff as well as detainees at the North Dartmouth facility. The move to declare Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson’s actions regarding detainee care unconstitutional is a first in the nation, and it is the first time a federal judge has ordered such testing.

Hodgson responded later in the day with his own statement criticizing the judge’s “meandering opinion,” which the sheriff said “expressed [the judge’s] personal dislike of immigration policies.” Hodgson said his office and Immigration and Customs Enforcement believe Young exceeded his authority and are urging the Department of Justice to seek an emergency stay of Young’s decision to allow time for an appeal.

The sheriff said the lawsuit against his office and ICE is an attempt “to attack immigration policy and seek the release of all persons ordered by the immigration courts to be deported.”

Young’s order came in the form of a preliminary injunction in a class action suit brought by Lawyers for Civil Rights on behalf of a group of immigrant detainees at the facility who were concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in close confines.

One immigrant detainee tested positive for the virus on Monday, and 10 staff members and medical vendors have previously tested positive for COVID-19.

Young expressed bewilderment that no testing had been offered to detainees before May 1. “The deliberate indifference warrants a preliminary injunction,” he said in making his order.

Young said he expects ICE, which has jurisdiction over the detainees, along with Hodgson, who operates the facility under contract with the federal government, to provide regular updates about testing. The cost of testing will be borne by ICE.

Young said that the tests are minimally invasive and that anyone can decline a test, but detainees who do so will be treated as if they are infected. “Anyone who declines a test shall be presumed to be carrying to COVID-19 virus and be dealt with accordingly,” said Young. Hodgson said staff would face the same presumption and could not work.

Young expressed concern that there has been no tracing of possible virus transmission between staff that tested positive and detainees they may have been in contact with, something the state is doing with the public.

“What sort of contact testing has there been? The record has been silent,” he said, ordering that such efforts begin.

Young said that he expects ICE and the county to report back on its effort to trace contacts with those infected in the near future.

Testing of detainees for coronavirus was the flashpoint for a disturbance that broke out at the facility on Friday night. Detainees resisted an effort to transport them as a group to another location to be tested for coronavirus. Conflicting accounts of the standoff have been offered, with Hodgson saying he and his corrections officers were attacked, and detainees claiming Hodgson provoked the conflict and attacked one detainee. Multiple investigations of the incident have been launched.

Young said he is also barring new arrivals to the North Dartmouth facility, including anyone already housed there who is removed to go to the hospital. ICE is able to transfer people out, including those awaiting deportation. Young previously ruled that some detainees may be released on bail or house arrest, and he has ordered the release of 50 detainees so far.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Hodgson, a hard-liner on immigration and the chairman of President Trump’s reelection campaign in Massachusetts, has previously objected to the release of detainees and has argued many of those ordered released by the judge have committed serious crimes. On April 13, he issued a statement saying “more than 30 illegal immigrants in ICE custody have been released from our correctional facilities, some of whom have been charged or convicted of crimes such as rape, robbery, assault, fraud, trafficking fentanyl and others. Some of them also had final removal orders from an immigration judge to be deported to their country of origin, but are instead free to roam the neighborhoods of our communities.”

Young said Thursday, “I am unaware that any of the individuals I’ve released violated the terms of their bail.”