Jose Beltran-Araujo, an illegal immigrant, stands accused of beating his girlfriend’s head with a glass bottle, knocking her unconscious, in front of her three children.
He had been sitting in an ICE detention facility in Massachusetts awaiting a deportation decision — but on Friday a federal judge ordered him released, citing the coronavirus crisis.
Same with Kevin Corleto, convicted of cocaine trafficking; Marvin Arreaga, arrested last year on charges of enticing a child, and assault and battery; and Carlos Carangui, an illegal immigrant ousted once before, who snuck back into the country and whom police say they caught stalking a woman.
All of them are in good health and aren’t high-risk for COVID-19, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says.
Yet all were ordered released on bail by Judge William G. Young, part of more than 40 releases he’s ordered so far as he works his way through nearly 150 detainees held at the Bristol County House of Corrections.
“The government’s quarrel is not with the court but with the vigorous recommendations of infectious disease experts worldwide, including in the federal government, to maximize social distancing,” he wrote in certifying a class action.
Judge Young is the most aggressive, but he’s hardly the only judge ordering releases. Across the country, immigrants in detention are rushing to federal courts to demand that judges release them, and by and large they’re winning their cases.
It’s the same situation as with prisons and jails — agencies that hold people in custody are under pressure to reduce their populations.
But the immigration situation brings its own challenges. The people in question often have long experience hiding in the shadows, so bringing them back later could be problematic — but immigration is a civil matter, not a punishment, so exposing them to heightened risk of a disease is unconstitutional, Judge Young and others have ruled.
Dozens of detainees have reportedly contracted COVID-19, which has spurred even more court cases and snap judicial rulings.
A federal court in San Francisco late last week ordered release of several migrants with diabetes or asthma. A judge in Michigan ordered an Iraqi man cut free from ICE custody, ruling the combination of his age — he’s 55 — and his disability would make a COVID-19 infection potentially deadly for him. The same judge also freed a British woman who was supposed to be under mandatory detention.
Judge Judith E. Levy said there’s nothing short of cutting the population that can reduce the risk of the coronavirus.
Sometimes ICE itself is freeing detainees on its own, deciding someone is a low risk to the community now but could become a high risk should the person contract COVID-19.
Still other cases involve illegal immigrants nabbed at the border who were being held in order to serve as witnesses in cases against their smugglers. Prosecutors and lawyers for the witnesses have worked out deals for release — though sometimes over the objection of the accused smugglers, who complain their right to a fair trial is being hindered.
Then there are cases like Mr. Beltan-Araujo, the Honduran man who snuck into the country in 2017, and who’s awaiting deportation.
His girlfriend told police he struck her in a jealous rage last year, smashing her head with a glass bottle in front of her three children. Police say he admitted to the attack, and witnesses said he kept hitting his girlfriend, and had to be restrained by others.
He was supposed to report to ICE voluntarily last month but refused and had to be arrested. He also is in good health, ICE said, saying he should be kept in custody.
“He is a risk to public safety as demonstrated by his pending charges for risk of injury to a child and assault. Additionally, ICE believes he will not comply with conditions of release as he has previously ignored an order to report to ICE,” the government said in a brief to Judge Young.
The judge felt otherwise.
“At bottom, a common question of law and fact in this case is whether the government must modify the conditions of confinement — or, failing that, release a critical mass of detainees — such that social distancing will be possible and all those held in the facility will not face a constitutionally violative ‘substantial risk of serious harm,’” he wrote in one order approving releases.
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson says it’s a mistake.
Speaking to The Washington Times on Friday, he said no detainee had tested positive, so Judge Young’s releases are based on speculative problems that don’t exist yet.
More than that, he said, most migrants likely would get better care in his facility than they would if they return to the community, where they lack insurance or access to care, save for showing up at an already stressed emergency room.
Inside the facility, though, there’s the regular medical care, plus an isolation chamber, should someone need to quarantine. Those dealing with illegal immigrants are used to handling contagious diseases.
Even if there’s more than one case, the facility is only at 56% capacity right now, the sheriff said: “We have plenty of room to move people to isolate and to quarantine.”
Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, which brought the class action lawsuit, says some of Sheriff Hodgson’s staff have been diagnosed with COVID-19, which makes the danger acute.
He said their target is to get all of the nearly 150 migrants released.
“This is a matter of life or death,” he said.
Mr. Espinoza-Madrigal said the Massachusetts case has secured the most releases of any case so far, though it could be overtaken by others, including a lawsuit in California arguing that illegal immigrant children across the country need to be quickly released from custody because of COVID-19.
Not every judge has agreed with the need for releases.
In Seattle, Judge James L. Robart has twice rejected demands to free a handful of detainees.
He said the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) has been operating at about half-capacity, allowing the GEO Group, the contractor that runs it, to space detainees farther apart, both during the day and for sleeping.
“Under the Fifth Amendment, respondents are not required to eliminate any risk to petitioners. Instead, respondents are required to provide for their ‘reasonable safety,’” Judge Robart wrote.
Helping matters is that ICE has slowed its pace of arrests by “exercising its discretion to delay enforcement actions until after the COVID-19 crisis or to use alternatives to detention,” the judge said. The NWDC also isn’t taking any new illegal immigrants arrested at the border, he said.
But other judges aren’t convinced.
A federal judge in California is pondering what to do about illegal immigrant children being kept with family in ICE dorm-like centers, or, if they came to the country without a parent, are being kept in Health Department-run shelters. She could speed release of hundreds of illegal immigrants.
Democrats on Capitol Hill are urging ICE to do more on its own. After a COVID-19 case was reported at the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico, the state’s congressional delegation demanded the agency be transparent about the risks and mitigation efforts.
Security experts, though, say the rights of victims and the public seem to be lost in the rush to release. Particularly in cases with persons accused, or in some cases already convicted, of domestic abuse, sex crimes or stalking, the chance to recidivate is real once they’re back on the streets.
“The thing that keeps crossing my mind is, where are these people going to go? Back to the spouses they abused? Do they have families here? How do they support themselves?” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies.
She said there’s no system in place to warn victims that their attackers are out.
Ms. Vaughan said if the judge wants to clear the jail, he should order the migrants’ immediate deportation.
Judge Young has rebuffed some release requests.
Thandokuhle Masimula, a South African woman accused of stalking, domestic assault, intimidation and breach of bail, was left in detention in a judge’s order Friday. The judge didn’t explain his reasoning in the order, but Ms. Masimula does already have a final deportation order lodged against her, which may set her apart from the others.
Of those released, Judge Young forbade ICE from rearresting them without an explicit court order. He did, though. grant ICE the ability to use ankle bracelets.
That only goes so far, the law enforcement experts said. Many migrants automatically cut off their bracelets at the first chance, and Sheriff Hodgson said those doing the monitoring then know exactly one thing — where the target isn’t.
Ms. Vaughan said when they cut bracelets, ICE has to send teams out into the field to track them down, elevating the risks all around.
“This judge has a shocking disregard for anyone’s safety except for the criminal aliens, and even that seems a little overheated,” she said.