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

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Alexis Gomez-Galeana was at Scott County Justice Center in Shakopee addressing a traffic ticket in early March when two undercover federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents unexpectedly stopped and booked him outside.

Gomez-Galeana’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status had expired two years prior and his current application for a U visa—which allows people to stay who have been the victims of crimes and suffered mental or physical abuse in the U.S.—was pending. Because of his immigration status and a two-year-old misdemeanor, ICE took him into custody and transported him to Sherburne County Jail in Elk River. The jail is the largest holding facility for ICE detainees in Minnesota. He arrived there on March 9, just as the COVID-19 pandemic started changing the patterns of daily life across the country.

Having come to the U.S. from Mexico at age 5, Gomez-Galeana was just getting his life together when he was detained. He’d completed his sentence and probation for the disorderly conduct misdemeanor and was training for a boxing career and mentoring youth at Circle of Discipline, a gym on Lake Street in Minneapolis. He’s also engaged to Malerie Corona, who is currently pregnant with their first child.

When ICE took Gomez-Galeana into custody, having deemed him a public safety threat and flight risk, it came as a surprise. “I’m 24 now,” he said during a videophone interview with the Sahan Journal earlier this month. “I thought that was in the past.” 

During his first few days of confinement, Gomez-Galeana and other detainees at Sherburne County jail watched as the virus took hold in the country, forcing businesses to shut down and people to stay inside. They grew increasingly worried about the conditions in the jail. Detention facilities are by nature cramped, with inmates sharing common areas and, often, cells. They are exactly the kinds of places where a virus like COVID-19 could flourish.

“To be honest, it feels like a slaughterhouse in here,” said Gomez-Galeana.

Detainees file a petition for release

Concerned that an outbreak could hit the jail and that neither Sherburne County nor ICE were taking adequate measures to stop it, Gomez-Galeana and 54 other detainees signed on as plaintiffs to an emergency motion filed in federal court asking that the men be released to home monitoring while their immigration cases moved forward. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Nancy E. Brasel, and its first hearing is scheduled for April 21 at 2pm by video conference.

The wrongful imprisonment petition comes at a time when activists, families, lawyers, and others across the country are demanding that immigration detainees be released from ICE facilities, including county jails. According to ICE, to date, there have been 100 cases of COVID-19 among detainees. Hundreds of people have been released already, including more than 200 from county jails in New Jersey.  

The petition filed by detainees in Sherburne County jail, which was put together without legal help according to Gomez-Galeana, has since been assigned by the court to Minneapolis attorneys Fred Goetz and Beth LaCanne, who are representing the detainees.

Goetz told MPR recently that nearly half of the plaintiffs have underlying health conditions that could make them vulnerable to COVID-19. “These folks are not criminals,” Goetz said. “They’re civil detainees who are being held for immigration violations.”

Officials from Sherburne County have said that they’re taking steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the jail, such as increasing cleaning, banning in-person visits, quarantining new inmates, and regularly taking the temperatures of inmates and staff.

An amended complaint filed April 7 by Goetz and LaCanne alleges that measures taken so far to prevent the virus’s spread are not enough. In particular, Goetz and LaCanne cite confirmed COVID-19 infections in Minnesota prisons in Moose Lake and Red Wing. These came despite the prisons having taken preventative measures similar to Sherburne County’s. The complaint also cited an imposed daily lockdown of inmates as “needless punishment” and alleged those with health problems aren’t being properly treated. 

ICE and Sherburne County provide more soap, release inmates

Earlier this week, ICE and Sherburne County responded to the amended complaint, emphasizing that their response to the COVID-19 pandemic has gone above and beyond attempting to prevent an outbreak.

ICE—while noting that Minnesota currently has the lowest coronavirus infection rate in the country, which limits an inmate’s risk of contracting it—said that it has released one of the Sherburne County plaintiffs due to health concerns. Five other plaintiffs who signed onto the original legal petition (which included 62 petitioners) have been released as well, “for various reasons,” according to ICE’s legal response. Three additional plaintiffs have been deported.

Goetz said that since filing the amended complaint, the number of plaintiffs has dropped to 45 or 46. 

For its part, Sherburne County officials responded that they’ve reduced the jail’s inmate population by one-third in response to the pandemic. None of the detainees listed as plaintiffs currently share their cells with others. All inmates have been given facemasks to wear when they’re in the common area and increased access to hand soap.

County officials said they’ve significantly limited the number of staff members allowed inside the jail, and all who enter must wear facemasks during their shifts. Officials also said they’ve asked ICE to limit the number of new detainees brought to the jail. As a result, they’ve only taken in one new ICE detainee since March 18.

Detainees fearful of COVID-19

None of this stops the constant rumors circulating among detainees that people are falling ill—there are stories of inmates being stricken by severe headaches, some lasting as long as two days. Even the practice of quarantining new arrivals has drawn suspicion, as it confirms that jail officials are worried that the virus could circulate inside the jail.

Another practice that is causing concern is the jail’s recent decision to keep all inmates in their cells for 20 hours per day. Jail officials say the lockdown is designed to limit physical contact in the common area, which could lead to an outbreak. But inmates deem this an infringement of their rights.

“It’s basically taking away the little freedom we have in here,” Gomez-Galeana said. 

Jose Pineda Mendoza, another ICE detainee at Sherburne County jail who signed on as a plaintiff to the wrongful imprisonment petition, feels the same way. He described the lockdown as another form of punishment that ultimately provides detainees less access to legal resources, violating their due process rights.

He also said that spending so many hours in their cells limits their ability to move around and exercise, which would help their immune systems fight the virus should they get it. This part is crucial for Pineda Mendoza because he has granular lymphoma leukemia. 

“Basically, if you get sick here, you’re hit,” he said via videophone earlier this month, “because you’re just locked down.”

Pineda Mendoza, 52, is originally from Mexico but has lived most of his life in California. He is undocumented and has been arrested multiple times for illegally crossing the border from Mexico. A legal filing from ICE says Pineda Mendoza has a record of theft, controlled substance violations, battery, DWI, and other offenses. The agency cites these crimes when describing why Pineda Mendoza cannot be released from detention to await his immigration hearing.

In 2015, Pineda Mendoza, who also suffers from mental health issues, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for two counts of illegal entry to the U.S. During his sentence, he was sent to the Federal Medical Center (FMC) in Rochester, where sick inmates can get medical help.

On the day he completed his sentence last November, Pineda Mendoza said ICE agents were waiting for him outside FMC. They took him to Sherburne County jail, where he says medical care is more limited. He’s especially concerned about coming into contact with COVID-19. “My immune system is compromised,” he said.

“We’re not criminal detainees in the Bureau of Prisons,” Pineda Mendoza added. “We’re civil detainees, immigration detainees, and they’re treating us like criminals.”

Immigration hearings await

While the wrongful imprisonment case makes its way through the federal court system, the detainees have other concerns as well. Gomez-Galeana awaits an immigration court hearing scheduled for later this month that could determine whether he will be deported.

Malerie Corona, Gomez-Galeana’s fiance, said it’s been hard for her not to see him during the past few weeks, as she’s entered her eighth month of pregnancy. “I’m going to be delivering soon and I need him here,” she said.

Phone conversations aren’t nearly enough. “I can’t imagine how she feels,” Gomez-Galeana said. “It’s the first time we’re having a baby.”

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...