As immigrants held at the Northwest detention center in Tacoma are cut off from family visits and fear of the novel coronavirus takes hold in a place where social distancing is not an option, nine vulnerable detainees filed suit Monday asking to be released.

The suit is the first of its kind nationally asking for detainees to be released, according to Matt Adams, legal director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), which is representing the plaintiffs, along with the ACLU. Detainees at the Tacoma facility, officially called the Northwest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Processing Center, are at particular risk because Washington is an epicenter of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, Adams said.

If a judge orders the plaintiffs’ release, their attorneys are hoping it will set a precedent for detention centers throughout the country.

“It is highly likely, and perhaps inevitable, that COVID-19 will reach the NWDC,” reads the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, referring to the facility formerly called the Northwest Detention Center.

As of midday Monday, one detainee had been tested for coronavirus and was awaiting results, and one housing unit was being “cohorted,” according to emails sent by an ICE official to Seattle immigration attorney Inna Scott. Neither the email, nor online information ICE has posted about COVID-19, explains what cohorting means, but the agency says those deemed at risk of exposure are separated from the general population.

The suit comes as lawyers, judges and even ICE prosecutors are asking questions about whether immigration courts should remain open. Seattle’s court closed last week until April 10 due to what was called a “secondary exposure,” according to Adam Boyd, a Tacoma attorney who serves as a liaison to the court system for local immigration lawyers. But the court inside the Tacoma detention center remains open so far.

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The detention center holds up to 1,575 immigrants going through deportation proceedings. The number actually there at any given time fluctuates and now may be as low as 900, according to Adams. Still, he said, hundreds of people are kept in close quarters.

The nine plaintiffs are detainees known to be especially at risk. They suffer from a variety of health conditions, including liver, heart and kidney disease, epilepsy and hypertension. One man is in a wheelchair, has a colonoscopy bag and catheter, and has been hospitalized multiple times for pneumonia.

The suit asks not only for their release but any detainees who are similarly vulnerable.

“At the end of the day, hand sanitizer is not going to protect these individuals,” Adams said.

ICE said it does not comment on pending litigation. The GEO Group, the private company that runs the detention center, did not comment on the litigation, saying it did not provide medical care at the facility, which is ICE’s responsibility.

But ICE and GEO have outlined a range of measures they are taking. Detainees are screened when they come in. Those with fevers or respiratory illnesses are placed “in a single medical housing room, or in a medical airborne infection isolation room specifically designed to contain biological agents, such as COVID-19,” according to ICE’s online information. Staff with symptoms have been told to say home.

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The detention center also now requires lawyers to talk with their clients by phone across a pane of glass in the general meeting area, rather than meeting face to face. And last week, it suspended “social” visits, including from family.

Attorney Boyd said he is consistently getting emails from family members wondering when loved ones will be released.

He said he’s also worried about possible coronavirus exposure at the Tacoma immigration court. In a rare show of unity, national organizations representing ICE prosecutors, immigration court judges and immigration attorneys issued a statement Sunday calling for the closure of all immigration courts.

Boyd said he was torn. If the Tacoma court closes, detainees won’t have an opportunity to bond out of the detention center. So he continues to appear, even though he fears passing an infection on to the in-laws he lives with, both at higher risk than himself.

“There’s a liberty issue at stake,” he said.

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