DOVER, N.H. – The ACLU of New Hampshire and national ACLU, together with law firms Nixon Peabody LLP, Whatley Kallas LLP, Shaheen & Gordon PA, Newman Law Office PLLC, and Hinckley Allen & Snyder LLP today brought a class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking the immediate release of all Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) civil detainees from Strafford County Department of Corrections. Medical authorities have emphatically stated that maintaining a social distance of six feet is crucial to preventing the spread of COVID-19—something that is impossible at the Dover facility.
José Nolberto Tacuri-Tacuri, plaintiff in the case, said, “I am bringing this lawsuit because I want to protect not only myself, but the other immigration detainees at the Strafford County Department of Corrections. I am afraid of the coronavirus because I learned from the news that people are infected in detention across the country. I am concerned that the same thing can happen here.”
“The failure by ICE to release detainees in Dover puts detainees, staff, and the broader community at grave risk of death or serious injury,” said Devon Chaffee, executive director of the ACLU of New Hampshire. “The virus is already spreading through correctional facilities across the country with devastating consequences. We are demanding immediate action to stem this outbreak and save lives.”
The conditions at the center that demand release for these inmates include:
- Bunk beds are placed only two to three feet apart.
- Detainees share sinks, toilets, counters, and showers.
- Food service is communal, with many people eating at the same table.
Because of these conditions, immigrants detained at Strafford County are at a heightened risk of exposure to the virus. This is not only inhumane, but also violates the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
"The ACLU is filing these cases around the country because, for our clients, a COVID-19 infection would likely be a death sentence," said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU's National Prison Project. "The moment is urgent — the health and wellbeing of detained immigrants, facility staff, and their communities are all at risk. Releasing people from detention is critical to flattening the curve and avoiding a humanitarian disaster."
“Our clients are not detained for criminal activity, but only to await civil immigration action,” said David Vicinanzo, leader of Nixon Peabody’s Government Investigations & White Collar Defense practice and former First Assistant U.S. Attorney for New Hampshire. “This civil detention places them in grave danger in this pandemic. Inevitably, one detainee will contract COVID-19, and the risk of spread throughout the facility is high and potentially lethal.”
“Because the plaintiffs and other proposed class members are not being detained pursuant to a criminal conviction, safer alternatives are available,” said Nathan Warecki, an attorney with Nixon Peabody in Manchester who specializes in complex immigration litigation. “ICE has a long-standing practice of releasing detainees for humanitarian reasons, and regularly uses options like GPS and electronic monitoring to maintain custody and control over non-citizens.”
“Detaining people for immigration violations during a pandemic is a completely unacceptable and irresponsible game of public health Russian Roulette. We don’t know who, and we don’t know when, but some people will get sick, and some people will die,” said Ron Abramson, counsel at Shaheen & Gordon PA. “The only way to minimize that possibility is to release as many people from detention as possible.”
The lawsuit maintains that because ICE has refused to make urgent, necessary changes to its operations during the pandemic, courts must intervene.
Civil Rights in a Pandemic
Viruses like COVID-19 do not distinguish between economic, immigration, or incarceration status—and so all people must be protected. The ACLU of New Hampshire is urging jails and prisons in the Granite State to release people where possible, and is asking ICE to halt immigration enforcement operations and, through a class action federal lawsuit, seeking the release of all ICE detainees currently at Strafford County Department of Corrections.
Directly after New Hampshire was placed under a state of emergency on March 13, 2020, the ACLU of New Hampshire released recommendations that government officials and other decision makers must consider to achieve a fair and effective response to COVID-19.