Officials on Friday confirmed the first positive COVID-19 test at the Northwest detention center in Tacoma, in a detainee who had previously tested positive at another detention center and was being medically screened on arrival at the immigration jail. The development came just as immigrant-rights advocates were going to court again in an attempt to free medically vulnerable detainees before any outbreak there.

In a lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union argued that it has become increasingly clear that there is no way to adequately protect people in custody from the coronavirus.

In a filing in a separate case Friday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said a detainee tested positive during a medical intake screening and will remain medically segregated for two weeks. The agency said that according to the Pierce County health department, the detainee has recovered and is no longer infectious, but still had enough virus cells present to test positive for the disease.

The detainee had been at the Northwest detention center before being transferred to an immigration jail in Florence, Arizona, ahead of a deportation flight. While there he developed symptoms, tested positive April 11, and was treated in isolation. Since his deportation flight was canceled, he was flown back to Tacoma along with three other detainees, wrote Dr. Sheri Malakhova, clinical director for ICE Health Services Corps at the Northwest detention center.

When they arrived in Tacoma on Tuesday, none of the four had symptoms, but were nevertheless tested. The results came back Friday, with three negative and the one who had been ill still positive, but deemed recovered, Malakhova said.

More than 750 immigration detainees at more than 40 detention facilities around the country have tested positive for the disease, a number that activists say may be an undercount given a paucity of testing at some facilities. On Wednesday, ICE confirmed the first COVID death of a detainee, at Otay Mesa detention Center in California.


“I’m scared. It’s going to happen in here,” Perla Martinez Acosta, 37, a detainee at the Tacoma detention center with a history of asthma, tuberculosis and other medical conditions, said Thursday in a phone interview. “I don’t want to die in here in this facility, away from my family.”

The lawsuit Friday was brought on behalf of four named detainees against ICE and the GEO Group, which runs the jail. It seeks class-action status that could bring about the release of roughly 100 people whom ICE officials have already identified as being at a higher risk of illness or death from the disease, said Northwest Immigrant Rights Project legal director Matt Adams.

Courts around the country have ordered medically vulnerable people released from ICE custody, but efforts to spring detainees from the privately run, for-profit immigration jail in Tacoma have met with limited success. The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed one case on behalf of nine detainees; while U.S. District Judge James Robart declined to order their release, saying there was no evidence of an outbreak at the detention center, ICE released four of the nine on its own.

In a separate federal lawsuit, Judge Ricardo Martinez last week ordered the release of a detainee named Rafael Pimentel-Estrada, saying that as a civil detainee — not a criminal offender — he had a right to be kept in conditions of “reasonable safety.”

ICE has taken steps to reduce the risk of an outbreak, including stopping visitation and observing newly arrived detainees for two weeks before introducing them to the general population.

But Martinez noted the detainees are largely responsible for doing their own sanitation work, with no evidence of professional cleaning; that shared bathrooms, sinks and other areas make social distancing impossible; and — “most concerningly” — that guards at the facility are not required to wear personal protection equipment that could help protect the detainees and themselves.

Martinez Acosta said she recently sought a test after developing some symptoms, but the medical staff refused to give her one because her fever wasn’t high enough.

The agency declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said it has evaluated detainees for medical risk and released more than 900 nationwide, with additional releases possible.