Immigration Law in Action: COVID-19 Immigration Class Action Settles

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Gita Howard

Pictured Clockwise: 2L Angelina Petrosova, Professor and Immigration Clinic Director Rebecca Sharpless, 3L Olivia Parise, and 2L Jose Ortega

A class action lawsuit of Miami Law's Immigration Clinic challenging conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic of three South Florida immigration detention jails has settled.

Last spring, the Immigration Clinic filed the lawsuit with community partners, bringing constitutional claims and alleging that the agency was deliberately indifferent to the risks to detained people posed by the pandemic. On June 6, 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Cooke granted a preliminary injunction, finding that the plaintiffs had established they were likely to succeed on their argument that Immigration and Customs Enforcement had been deliberately indifferent. On March 23, 2021, she denied the government’s motion to reconsider her decision, characterizing the government’s argument as “disingenuous and rest[ing] upon a blatant perversion of the record in this case.” She stated that the “Court cannot countenance revisionist history.”

The terms, originally filed under seal, is now public. The settlement comes amid increased calls from Florida advocates to free people from detention. At the three South Florida jails covered by the lawsuit, nearly 500 people contracted COVID-19 and at least one person died from complications with the virus.

Olivia Parise, a third-year student and student fellow in the Immigration Clinic, said  “It was distressing to speak with detained people and hear the fear in their voices telling us about how horrible the conditions were in the facilities once COVID-19 started. But when I started working on this case last spring, I saw hope in how my fellow clinic classmates and other community members, including attorneys and organizers, did not hesitate in trying to help. It was very daunting task to tackle the systematic failures of our immigration detention system that put our detained community at risk.”

Key provisions of the settlement agreement require that the court continue to monitor the government’s compliance with safety protocols, including vaccinations, testing, population reduction, masking, and limitations on transfers. Second-year Immigration Clinic student Jose Ortega said, “The settlement is an important step in ending the inhumane conditions that have placed detained people's lives at risk during the pandemic. Of course, there is more work to do, and it is important that Miami Law continues to be out in front to challenge the system and demand change.”

Reflecting on her work with people covered by the settlement who are at risk of a severe case of the virus, third-year student Sara Hastings, a student fellow in the Immigration Clinic, said “It's important for the Clinic to get involved in difficult cases like the COVID-19 litigation because immigration detention has become a life-threatening situation during the pandemic. This settlement is a huge step in the right direction but there is still work to be done to ensure the fair and humane treatment of all immigrants in detention.”

The three detention centers covered by the settlement are the Krome Service Processing Center in Miami, the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, and the Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven.

Angelina Petrosova, a second-year student in the Immigration Clinic, said “When I started working with a detained client, I realized just how bad the conditions in detention were for people during the pandemic, especially those at the most risk. I was very touched by how a team of lawyers and students came together quickly and selflessly to try and help those in desperate need. Clinical education at MiamiLaw is crucial because it not only teaches us how to practice law but also it is a constant reminder of just how important it is to work in the service of others.”

The lawsuit was filed last April in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida Miami Division by the University of Miami School of Law’s Immigration Clinic, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Rapid Defense Network, Legal Aid Service of Broward County, and the law firm of Prada Urizar. The law firm of King & Spalding and Americans for Immigrant Justice joined the litigation team over the summer.

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