Sherburne County jail, pictured here, is home to the most ICE detainees in Minnesota. Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

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Sherburne County Jail and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement can keep immigrant detainees behind bars during the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. District Judge Nancy E. Brasel ruled Thursday

Brasel’s eight-page ruling rejected the request for emergency release filed by 62 ICE detainees nearly two months ago. The detainees, who argued that their health was at risk because conditions at the jail made it ripe for an outbreak, could not prove Sherburne County or ICE were acting “deliberately indifferent to their serious medical needs or safety,” Brasel said.

Brasel’s ruling accepted the recommendation of federal Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Cowen Wright late last month. Wright heard arguments for the case in a court hearing conducted over a telephone conference during April. 

Frederick Goetz, the attorney who represents the ICE detainees, said he had not yet decided whether he will appeal the ruling. 

“I’m still conferring with my clients as to what the next step is going to be,” Goetz said. 

Goetz did not give a deadline for when he’ll make that decision. 

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: JUDGE RECOMMENDS AGAINST RELEASE OF SHERBURNE COUNTY ICE INMATES

Over the course of the case, Sherburne County and ICE repeatedly cited the measures they took to prevent the spread of the virus, which include barring in-person visits, heightened cleaning and limiting detainees’ access to the jail’s shared public space.

Goetz and his clients asserted that the nature of COVID-19, including a prolonged incubation period without symptoms and the prevalence of asymptomatic infections, made it impossible to implement measures that could prevent an outbreak. They argued for emergency release so detainees could await their immigration cases in settings like home confinement and probation. Several of the detainees have pre-existing medical conditions that could make them susceptible to severe symptoms should they contract the virus.

But both Wright and Brasel wrote that the preventative measures taken meant that the detainees could not prove the jail or ICE were acting with “deliberate indifference” to their health. 

To date, ICE says no inmates in Minnesota have tested positive for the virus. But testing in Sherburne County has been limited, for which Brasel did not fault Sherburne County or ICE. 

“Testing supplies are limited everywhere,” Brasel wrote in her riling. “The [Sherburne County Jail] has followed the Minnesota Department of Health guidelines for testing, and these guidelines are influenced by national shortages of testing supplies.” 

While Wright and Brasel both rejected the detainees’ request for release, other federal judges are ruling differently in similar cases in other parts of the country.

In Florida, for example, ICE significantly reduced its inmate population after a federal judge ruled that the agency must release more than 1,000 detainees in three detention centers to stop the spread of the virus. A federal judge in California also ruled last month that ICE must start tracking every inmate at greater risk of severe COVID-19 and consider releasing detainees. 

Some federal judges are ordering measured releases of ICE detainees on a smaller scale. Earlier this week, a federal judge in Michigan ordered release of two detainees with medical issues but blocked release of two others. 

Overall, ICE says that 943 of the 1,788 detainees it has tested across the country have been infected with COVID-19.

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...