ICE Can't Keep Transferred Detainee Out Of Fla. Class Action

By Nathan Hale
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Law360 (February 26, 2021, 9:55 PM EST) -- A Florida federal judge ruled Friday that a Mexican citizen can join a class action challenging U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainee conditions at three South Florida facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the agency cannot escape jurisdiction by transferring him to a facility across the country.

Miami-based U.S. Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman noted in his order granting Miguel Angel Zetina's motion to intervene that the district judge overseeing the case certified a class including all current and future civil immigration detainees at the facilities as of the suit's April 13 filing date, and said in the same order that the court "shall retain jurisdiction over all class members who are transferred to other facilities regardless of where those facilities are located."

"Therefore, respondents' argument that Mr. Zetina has been transferred to another immigration facility outside of South Florida (i.e., Torrance County Detention Facility in New Mexico) is unpersuasive, given that the court has already rejected the argument," Judge Goodman said.

According to his motion, Zetina had been held at the Krome Service Processing Center near Miami when he was arrested in March 2018 until he was transferred to New Mexico in May. Following Judge Goodman's ruling Friday, Zetina filed his petition for a writ of habeas corpus asking the court to expedite consideration of his release request.

Zetina's counsel, Mark A. Prada of Prada Urizar PLLC, said Friday he was particularly interested by another finding Judge Goodman made rejecting ICE's argument that the Florida court lacked jurisdiction over Zetina because his current custodian is the warden of the Torrance County Detention Facility, who is not a defendant in the Florida class action.

Judge Goodman said courts have routinely found that parties such as the U.S. attorney general, who is named in the class action, are proper defendants in similar cases.

"If respondents were to raise an argument regarding the 'immediate custodian' rule, it would 'not apply in this case [because] at least one of the respondents identified by [the petitioner] can provide him the relief he requests,'" Judge Goodman said.

The judge also pointed out that when immigration detainees are held in state and local facilities, a writ directed to the warden "would make little legal sense" because the warden's authority comes from a contract with federal authorities that does not give them independent power to release detainees.

"It is therefore not logical to demand that an immigration detainee's petition be directed to a local or state warden who in reality has no legal power and, often, little actual power to 'bring forth the body' of the detainee," Judge Goodman said.

Prada said this custodian issue is one that has been subject to a long-standing split among courts about whether the custodian designation is strict or flexible in immigration cases.

"In terms of general habeas law, I am really happy about that discussion," Prada said.

Although Zetina's claim for release is not based on COVID-19, Judge Goodman agreed with his argument that intervention was appropriate because it shares a common issue of law with the class' claims because it is based on due process concerns.

In his filings, Zetina, who says he is 25 and has lived in the U.S. since he was brought across the border at about the age of 4, said he has been subject to mandatory detention for nearly three years because of a conviction for simple possession of marijuana.

Shortly before his arrest, he obtained certification for a U visa, a nonimmigrant visa available to noncitizens who help law enforcement prosecute crimes, after he was a victim of an attempted murder that included being stabbed with a samurai sword. A year ago, an immigration judge granted him a waiver of inadmissability.

"The respondents did not oppose the grant of the waiver; rather, they have been arguing that Zetina should be ordered removed despite the grant of a waiver — while unnecessarily exposing Zetina to potential infection, and others to spread by transferring Zetina to New Mexico," he said in his habeas petition. "Thus, Zetina brings a claim that his detention under these circumstances offends due process."

Detainees at the Krome center, the Glades County Detention Center and the Broward Transitional Center in South Florida petitioned the Florida federal court for release in April, saying in a more than 100-page complaint that they were incapable of social distancing in the detention centers' congregate housing and had inadequate supplies of soap and personal protective gear. By failing to provide these protections against the coronavirus, ICE had endangered their safety and violated their constitutional rights, the detainees argued.

In June, U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke ordered ICE to improve conditions at the facilities, finding that the detainees were likely to win on claims that the agency treated them with deliberate indifference.

ICE moved for summary judgment in January, telling the court that steps it took to reduce the detainee population, reconfigure dining and sleeping arrangements, and end social visits showed it did not treat detainee health recklessly amid the global health emergency.

An ICE spokesman said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The detainees are represented by Gregory P. Copeland and Sarah T. Gillman of Rapid Defense Network, Scott M. Edson, Kathryn S. Lehman and Chad A. Peterson of King & Spalding LLP, Rebecca Sharpless and Romy Lerner of the University of Miami School of Law Immigration Clinic, Paul R. Chavez of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Mark Andrew Prada and Anthony Richard Dominguez of Prada Urizar PLLC, Lisa Lehner of Americans for Immigrant Justice, and Andrea Montavon-McKillip of the Legal Aid Service of Broward County Inc.

Zetina is represented individually by Mark Andrew Prada of Prada Urizar PLLC.

ICE is represented by Dexter A. Lee and Natalie Diaz of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida.

The case is Gayle et al. v. Meade et al., case number 1:20-cv-21553, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

--Additional reporting by Alyssa Aquino. Editing by Adam LoBelia.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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