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

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Since the COVID-19 outbreak abruptly changed life around the country and globe, local immigration attorneys have been scrambling to figure out how the pandemic is affecting their clients who are detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Minnesota jails.

Though ICE doesn’t run any detention centers of its own in Minnesota, it contracts with five county jails in the state to house immigration detainees, the largest of which is Sherburne County jail in Elk River.

Attorneys like Sarah Brenes, director of the refugee and immigrant program at the Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis, warn that crowded jails like Sherburne are potential hot spots for the novel coronavirus to spread and get out of control. “It’s just a matter of time before there’s going to be an outbreak there and all of the precautions that they’re not taking now are going to come to light,” Brenes said.

This is a concern across the country and lawyers, advocates, and detainees have been sounding the alarm. On Tuesday, ICE announced that the first immigrant held in one of its facilities had tested positive for COVID-19, a 31-year-old Mexican national at the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New Jersey.

Brenes and Hanne Sandison, an attorney and immigrant justice corps fellow at the Advocates for Human Rights, say that while county jails have started to impose restrictions on public visits to prevent the spread of the virus, the new rules have made it harder for attorneys to communicate with their clients. This, despite the fact that the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) is still moving forward with immigration cases even as courts across the country delay non-immigration-related hearings due to the pandemic.

Concerns about conditions at the Sherburne County jail were crystalized earlier this week when 62 ICE detainees held at the facility filed for emergency release and requested to be placed on home monitoring. The wrongful imprisonment petition, first reported by the Star Tribune, claims that as ICE detainees, the inmates are at a high risk of being infected with and spreading the virus. They cited COVID-19-related prison deaths in Europe as justification for their release. 

An ICE official who spoke with the Sahan Journal but wished to remain anonymous said the agency is not planning to release any Minnesota detainees considered vulnerable to COVID-19 by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because they either have criminal histories or have been deemed threats to public safety. ICE must respond to the detainees’ petition by April 9.

Dave Unze, a spokesperson with Sherburne County, said the county does not comment on pending litigation. But he said the county has taken a number of steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to jail inmates and jail employees. So far, he said, there are no positive cases inside the jail. 

Any new inmates, whether or not they are immigration detainees, are quarantined for 14 days, Unze said. Their temperatures are taken each day and they’re asked questions about whether they’re experiencing COVID-19-related symptoms. The same goes for jail employees. 

The jail has curtailed on-premises video visits from members of the public to detainees, though they can still chat via video from their homes, Unze said. “We’ve doubled up and tripled up any cleaning that happens in the facility,” he added.

Sandison noted that video chats aren’t effective for legal consultations, mainly because they’re limited to between 20 and 40 minutes and because detainees have been conducting them in a public room in the presence of others. That makes confidentiality issues hard to navigate, she said. 

“People who are fearing return to their home country because of their sexual orientation or some other reason that might open them up to discrimination in detention are really reluctant to talk to us about that” in public, she said. Yet, those conversations are “really important to their case.”

Lawyers with the Advocates for Human Rights reached out to ICE officials about the possibility of their meeting clients in the basement of the Bishop Henry Whipple federal building at Ft. Snelling, where DOJ immigration court proceedings are held. ICE officials said they didn’t have the capacity to transport detainees to Ft. Snelling to meet with their attorneys, according to Sandison.

“They can’t say, ‘We have the capacity to detain, but we don’t have the capacity to make sure the detainees have access to counsel,’” she said.

In order to ease a glut of immigration-related cases in federal court in Minnesota, the DOJ is assigning some cases to judges who don’t normally handle detainment-related matters. The case filed by the 62 ICE detainees in Sherburne County jail has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Nancy E. Brasel. So far, no hearings have been scheduled.

If someone you know is housed at the Sherburne County jail on an immigration-related matter, I would like to hear from you. Contact me at jpeters@sahanjournal.com

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...