CONCORD — The ACLU of New Hampshire filed an emergency federal lawsuit Friday seeking an expedited hearing for a Guatemalan man seeking release from federal immigration detention due to concerns of contracting COVID-19 in jail.
Pedro Gonzalez Guarcas is currently being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at Strafford County Department of Corrections. According to court documents, Gonzalez Guarcas came to the United States seeking asylum after the Guatemalan Civil War where his people were subject to “violence, discrimination, and genocide by the government,” officials with the ACLU of NH said in a news release.
“There is a heightened risk of serious harm to people in immigration detention from COVID-19, so we ask the court to hear this case as soon as possible and to release Mr. Gonzalez Guarcas back to his family during this extraordinarily difficult time,” said SangYeob Kim, immigration staff attorney at the ACLU of New Hampshire, in a statement. “In addition to this case, we have also asked ICE to release detainees from Strafford County Department of Corrections, as public health experts have warned that failure to do so endangers the lives of everyone in the facility, including staff, and the broader community.”
Last month, the ACLU and the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers recommended that police and prosecutors limit the number of arrests and that the elderly and people in poor health be released from jails and prisons.
“Residents of New Hampshire’s correctional facilities, along with their friends and family, deserve to know the steps being taken to protect their health and safety during this public emergency,” said Devon Chaffee, executive director of the ACLU of New Hampshire, in a statement. “Transparent plans from correctional facilities will ensure everyone is informed when it comes to visitation, testing, treatment, and the overall processes for handling COVID-19.”
In court documents, lawyers for Gonzalez Guarcas argue “time is of the essence before the virus becomes widespread within prison and jail facilities” in New Hampshire, causing him to become “trapped inside a nightmare scenario” at the Strafford County jail.
“This disease is spreading exponentially across the country and across New Hampshire,” attorneys with the ACLU argue. “There is no vaccine, and no uninfected person is immune. As explained in the Governor’s recent March 24, 2020, press conference, a ‘huge surge’ of reported cases is expected, with a peak sometime around late April or early May. Five people have already died. Because there is no vaccine for or cure to COVID-19, the only known way to protect against serious illness or death caused by COVID-19 is social distancing or hygiene, however, experts have found that such practices are virtually impossible in detention settings.”
The ACLU of New Hampshire is also asking a judge to consider releasing other immigration detainees housed at the Strafford County jail in Dover, where Gonzalez Guarcas has been held since Feb. 28.