Sherburne County jail, pictured here, is home to the most ICE detainees in Minnesota. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun

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A federal magistrate judge has recommended against the emergency release of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees held at the Sherburne County jail. 

Last month, 62 detainees filed a petition for release, arguing that the jail was fertile ground for the COVID-19 pandemic to spread, putting their lives in danger. Staying in custody, they argued, violated their constitutional and due process rights because the conditions put their health at risk. 

But according to federal Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Cowen Wright, ICE and the jail’s inability to completely prevent the spread of the virus does not violate their legal rights. Wright, who heard arguments from both sides in a telephone conference last week, wrote her recommendation Tuesday. 

Wright’s recommendation goes to U.S. District Judge Nancy E. Brasel, who will make the ultimate decision on the case. Attorneys for the detainees have until Friday to submit written objections to Wright’s recommendation. 


Wright said detainees don’t dispute that there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases in the jail, or that the jail has taken many measures to prevent the spread of the virus. They include the release of roughly one-third of all jail inmates, heightened cleaning measures, banning in-person visits and limiting inmates’ access to the jail’s public space. 

Wright also wrote that the detainees haven’t shown how they will be safer if released from the jail. This includes the nearly dozen detainees whom both sides agree have existing health conditions that would put them in the high-risk category should they contract the virus. 

“Even assuming the risk to those detainees with medical conditions renders them more susceptible to serious COVID-19 infections, under CDC and ICE guidance, respondents have taken numerous measures in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Wright wrote, “and thereby reduce the likelihood that the detainees, including those at higher risk, become infected with the virus.” 

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...