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Judge Orders DHS To Release Records Regarding COVID-19 Outbreaks

A vehicle drives into the Otay Mesa detention center in San Diego, Calif., Ju...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: A vehicle drives into the Otay Mesa detention center in San Diego, Calif., June 9, 2017.

A Los Angeles federal judge today ordered the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to release records regarding COVID-19 outbreaks at the Otay Mesa and Adelanto immigration detention centers and Border Patrol stations to a legal aid organization that sued to obtain the information.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Otis Wright II stems from a lawsuit filed in June under the Freedom of Information Act by Al Otro Lado and the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.

The judge directed DHS to process 1,000 pages per month, beginning immediately, stemming from the COVID-19-related FOIA requests. Wright wrote in his ruling that the information "is in the public interest."

The facilities targeted in the suit — the Adelanto and Otay Mesa detention centers, and all land ports of entry and Border Patrol stations in California — have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with Otay Mesa in San Diego being the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak of any detention facility nationwide, according to the plaintiffs.

A DHS representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Seven FOIA requests were made to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and DHS seeking medical files — with personal identifying information redacted — of detainees who have reported respiratory or flu-like symptoms, or who have been tested for or diagnosed with COVID-19; records related to precautions taken at the facilities and the number of detainees who have been taken to the hospital, tested positive, been placed in solitary confinement, or granted parole; and information pertaining to hunger strikes within the facilities.

Such details "would allow the public to understand the extent and the nature of the crisis clearly occurring within Southern California detention centers and take informed steps to address and mitigate that crisis," according to the federal suit.

Although more than a month passed since DHS, CBP and ICE granted the request for expedited processing, the agencies failed to make a determination about delivery of the material within the statutory deadline of 20 business days, the plaintiffs allege.

The records sought under the FOIA request "are critically important to assist detained persons, families and friends of detained persons, attorneys, and the general public in understanding how the U.S. government treats people in its custody who are at serious risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic," according to the lawsuit.

Al Otro Lado — meaning "to the other side" — serves indigent deportees, migrants, refugees and separated families. According to the organization, the "notoriously poor health and hygiene practices at detention centers make them particularly likely sites for COVID-19 outbreaks, and render them gravely unprepared to address such outbreaks."

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