Fla. Court Orders ICE To Release Social Distancing Data

By Alyssa Aquino
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Law360 (March 26, 2021, 6:48 PM EDT) -- A Florida federal judge on Thursday backed a special master's call to further review U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's social distancing measures at three detention centers and ordered the agency to brief the court on how it has cohorted detainees and enforced social distancing.

U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke adopted special master Matthew Dates' report, despite ICE's objections. ICE had argued that occupancy was low in three southern Florida detention facilities, and cited security as a reason against releasing the data.

"The court finds the Special Master's Report to be thorough, insightful, clear, and cogent," Judge Cooke said.

The order comes in litigation accusing ICE of falling far short of protecting detainees from the threat of COVID-19 at the Krome Service Processing Center, Glades County Detention Center and the Broward Transitional Center.

In June, Judge Cooke ordered ICE to improve conditions at the three facilities. The improvements included providing detainees with adequate masks and hygienic supplies and ceasing to cohort individuals who tested positive for the virus with those who did not. Ten days later, the detainees petitioned Judge Cooke to order ICE to comply with the injunction.

In July, Judge Cooke appointed Dates to audit the three facilities and report back on ICE's compliance. Though Dates found the centers generally clean, and stocked with cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, he reported that ICE's social distancing efforts were insufficient. He also noted that ICE refused to hand over the centers' floor plans, an omission connected to ICE's social distancing efforts. Dates ultimately recommended denying most of the motion to compel compliance, save for the injunction's social distancing provisions.

ICE refuted the report in February, saying the detainee population was currently lower than it was in July and August when Dates inspected the centers. They also challenged Dates' observations on how closely dormitory beds were spaced together, explaining that some weren't in use.

The suing detainees didn't challenge most of the report's findings, but raised their own concerns over its failure to address whether ICE was cohorting individuals with COVID-19 with those who hadn't been tested.

Under the Thursday order, ICE has been given seven days to report back on how many dormitory beds are occupied in its three centers. The agency must also explain if it has cohorted individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 with detainees who have not since Judge Cooke issued her injunction in June.

Judge Cooke will hear arguments on ICE's social distancing efforts after she receives the information.

"We're pleased that Judge Cooke is looking into this and is looking at the actual ability of people to social distance and the actual density… at a more practicable level," Scott Edson, an attorney for the detainees, said Friday.

ICE declined requests for comment Friday, citing ongoing litigation. Representatives for the detainees didn't respond to requests for comment.

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.

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.

--Editing by Regan Estes.

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

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