SEATTLE - A federal judge has declined to order speedier bail hearings for detainees at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement lockup in Tacoma who are especially at risk from COVID-19, despite recent cases there.
Attorneys for the detainees asked U.S. District Judge James L. Robart in Seattle to order the expedited bail hearings, to put a cap on the detention center’s population, and to order periodic testing of detainees and staff.
In an order Friday night, the judge declined.
Robart, who also declined to order the release of at-risk immigration detainees early in the pandemic, said he could not conclude that the detention center’s COVID-19 precautions have been unreasonable.
"While there have been a limited number of individuals to test positive for the virus, Respondents continue to implement practices to abate the risk of an outbreak," the judge wrote.
ICE has already released or deported dozens of at-risk detainees, and the judge noted that the 1,575-bed facility now has just 290 detainees. The jail is run by the GEO Group, a for-profit company.
Guards are required to wear masks, though detainees insist that compliance has been spotty; newly arrived detainees are quarantined for two weeks; detainees who test positive are isolated; and temperature checks are performed regularly, the judge said.
Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, called the ruling disappointing Saturday and said the court should act before there’s a major outbreak, as there have been at many other jails, prisons and immigration lockups.
Some 70 of the 290 remaining detainees are considered high risk for virus complications due to their age or pre-existing conditions, he said.
"If you wait until there’s an active outbreak, it’s going to be too late," Adams said. "This is the same government agency, the same private company, the GEO Group, that has had outbreaks at other detention centers. It’s not like there’s some special magic potion they’re using up here."
There have been a few positive tests at the jail in the past month, including a pharmacy technician who was fired for showing up to work despite having an immediate family member test positive. Two other pharmacy workers subsequently tested positive, but none of the three interacted with detainees.
Last week, a GEO employee who works in the kitchen, tested positive. Three detainees who also worked in the kitchen have been quarantined.
A spokeswoman for ICE did not immediately return an email seeking comment Saturday.
GEO has repeatedly defended its pandemic precautions, noting that its facilities are not overcrowded, have round-the-clock access to healthcare and provide each detainee at least three facemasks per week. Many of its facilities, including the one in Tacoma, have airborne infection isolation units.
Robart found that the conditions at the Tacoma detention center a far cry from those at some other immigration jails, including one in Adelanto, California, operated by GEO.
There, a federal judge in October ordered the release of about 250 detainees to help allow for social distancing inside after dozens tested positive and several were hospitalized. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found detainees there had inadequate access to masks, guards were not required to wear masks, there was a lack of cleaning supplies, and new arrivals were not adequately quarantined or tested.