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

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A judge soon will decide the fate of dozens of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees housed at the Sherburne County Jail in Elk River, who are worried about getting infected with COVID-19.

Roughly 40 people held at the jail assert that conditions there will lead to a COVID-19 outbreak and jeopardize their health and lives. Already, there are 253 confirmed cases of the virus among detainees in facilities across the country, none so far in Minnesota. ICE has acknowledged that 11 of those held in Sherburne County have underlying health conditions that put them at a high risk of serious consequences should they contract the virus. 

Last month, a large group of detainees filed a federal petition for emergency release–the original petition included 62 names, but the roster has dwindled as ICE and Sherburne County have released at least one person and deported others. The Sahan Journal has been covering the case and speaking with petitioners held at the jail.

On Tuesday afternoon, federal Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Cowen Wright heard arguments for and against the petition via phone conference. The hearing came on the heels of a ruling by a federal judge in California on Monday that ordered ICE to identify and track all inmates who are at an elevated risk of contracting the virus and consider releasing them.

In arguing on behalf of detainees in Sherburne County, Minneapolis-based attorney Frederick Goetz cited COVID-19 outbreaks in the Cook County Jail and meatpacking plants in Worthington and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as examples of what could go wrong if detainees aren’t released.

He acknowledged that Minnesota’s overall COVID-19 infection rate is relatively low compared to some states, citing a statewide lockdown and social distancing measures. “But it’s not going to take much to change that,” Goetz said. “If these individuals stay in, there is a risk medical facilities will be overburdened.”

Sherburne County Jail is “flying blind” on the matter, he argued, because it doesn’t have the kits to conduct COVID-19 tests on inmates or staff. It isn’t a matter of if, but when a detainee will become infected, he said, adding that once that happens, “it will be too late” to protect the rest of the detainees and staff.

Goetz emphasized that his clients are civil detainees–many are local people awaiting immigration hearings–and thus subject to greater legal protections than inmates in criminal cases. He said they are not asking for release from their immigration cases, but for home confinement or supervised release.

Attorneys for ICE and Sherburne County countered that the detainees are at no higher risk inside the jail than if they were outside in the community. They cited the many measures the jail has taken to prevent an outbreak. These include banning in-person visits, heightening routine cleaning, quarantining all new inmates for 14 days regardless of whether they show symptoms, taking the temperatures of jail staff each day, and assigning staff to work seven days on and seven days off. 

Elk River-based attorney Timothy Sime, who represents Sherburne County, said no setting, whether inside or outside of jail, can completely mitigate risk to the virus. “What we can do is mirror and reflect what’s going on in the community at large as best we can,” Sime said. “And frankly, I think we’ve done that.” 

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Fuller, arguing on behalf of ICE, added that Sherburne County Jail is a “model facility” for protecting the health and safety of inmates and staff. “It’s fair to say they’ve done the best they can and can’t really do more,” he said.

“The details of what they’ve done here are unlike any I’ve seen,” Fuller added. “The jail is doing best practices and implementing best procedures.” 

But the virus, Goetz countered, “will go right around” the jail’s preventative measures because of the lack of testing–Sherburne County officials have said they can’t access COVID-19 tests. The virus’s ability to spread before infected people have symptoms and the fact that some never develop symptoms at all only add to the danger, Goetz said.

Magistrate Judge Wright said she’ll make a recommendation to U.S. District Judge Nancy E. Brasel, who has been assigned the case and will ultimately decide the fate of the detainees, in the coming days.

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...