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“Impending Public Health Disaster”: Leading U.S. Medical and Constitutional Law Experts File Milestone Amicus Brief to Release Detained Immigrants from ICE Detention Facility

Brief cites new ‘optimistic’ research models estimating that 72 percent of people in facilities the size of the Adelanto, California ICE facility could be infected with coronavirus within 90 days of an outbreak, quickly overwhelming local hospital capacity

Nineteen leading medical, public health, and constitutional law experts joined together to file an amicus brief today in support of urgently reducing the number of immigrants detained at the Adelanto Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Processing Center in California, one of the nation’s largest immigration detention facilities.

In a unique collaboration, the preeminent epidemiologists, physicians, and constitutional lawyers warn of the “impending public health disaster” that will take place if the U.S. government does not immediately release immigration detainees to allow for social distancing and slow the spread of the coronavirus. The public health evidence presented highlights the profound dangers that ICE exposes detained immigrants to amid the devastating COVID-19 pandemic.”

The experts write:

“Every passing day that ICE persists in its unlawful conduct at Adelanto is another day that it imperils those in its custody, the safety of its staff, the welfare of surrounding communities, and the capacity of nearby hospitals. Entering a stay [not allowing the lower court’s release order to take effect] would be a dangerous gamble — and would drastically increase the odds that Adelanto will be overwhelmed by a coronavirus outbreak in the interim. Neither law nor equity warrants that result.”

The full amicus brief is available here.

The 19 experts urge the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to deny a stay in Kelvin Hernandez Roman v. Chad F. Wolf, a case which seeks to protect detained immigrants at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center and the broader public from the grave risks of COVID-19. In a powerful ruling, U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter on Thursday ordered immigration officials to significantly reduce the number of detainees at the facility “to such a level that would allow the remaining detainees to maintain a social distance of six feet from each other at all times.” The federal government appealed the judge’s decision to the Ninth Circuit, which temporarily stayed the order. The case was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and the law firm Latham & Watkins on behalf of immigrants detained at the Adelanto ICE facility.

The amicus brief filed Wednesday by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and legal experts highlights the broad public health interest – both inside and outside of detention centers – in mitigating the spread of coronavirus in detention facilities by reducing the numbers of immigrants detained in such settings. There is wide consensus in the public health field that these measures will significantly contribute to “curtailing the catastrophic effects of this global pandemic.”

The Adelanto ICE Processing Center currently holds about 1,300 of the approximately 31,000 detained immigrants in ICE custody nationally. As of April 28, there have been 425 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among those in ICE custody.

The amicus brief cites new epidemiological research published Monday in the Journal of Urban Health, which models the spread of coronavirus in immigration detention facilities and the impacts on detainee health and local hospitals if ICE does not reduce the population in facilities. The experts write:

Even under the study’s optimistic scenario, it estimates that 72% of people in the facilities evaluated (including Adelanto) will be infected within 90 days of an outbreak…. At a facility of 1000 people – similar to Adelanto’s current size – the study predicts that a minimum of 722 will fall ill. In that scenario, the study finds that local hospital capacity and ICE beds would quickly be overwhelmed. In the study’s optimistic scenario, it takes 90 days for ICE facilities such as Adelanto to produce a number of critical care patients that outstrips ICU bed capacity within a 10-mile radius; in the study’s more pessimistic scenario, it takes only 30 days. The study concludes that “[l]owering a population’s density” is the most effective way to ‘slow the spread’ of disease.”

Amici – Experts in public health, medicine, and epidemiology:

  • Ranit Mishori, MD, MHS, FAAFP, Senior Medical Advisor, Physicians for Human Rights, and Professor of Family Medicine, Georgetown University
  • Chris Beyrer MD, MPH, Desmond M. Tutu Professor of Public Health and Human Rights, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Member, PHR Advisory Council
  • Gregg Gonsalves, PhD, Assistant Professor of the Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases at the Yale School of Public Health, and Associate Professor, Yale Law School
  • Michele Heisler, MD, MPA, Medical Director, Physicians for Human Rights, and Professor of Public Health and Internal Medicine, University of Michigan
  • Katherine C. McKenzie, MD, FACP, Faculty Member, Yale School of Medicine, and Director, Yale Center for Asylum Medicine 
  • Parveen Parmar, MD, Chief of the Division of Global Emergency Medicine and Associate Professor, University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine
  • Katherine Peeler, MD, Instructor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, and Pediatric Critical Care Physician, Boston Children’s Hospital
  • Adam Richards, MD, PhD, MPH, California Disaster Healthcare Volunteer, Los Angeles County Surge Unit, COVID-19 Quarantine/Isolation Program
  • Altaf Saadi, MD, MSc, Neurologist, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Instructor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School
  • Joseph Shin, MD, MSc, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medicine and the Cornell Center for Health Equity

Amici – Constitutional law scholars:

  • Nikolas Bowie, Assistant Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
  • Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean & Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor of Law, Berkeley Law School
  • Michael Dorf, Roberts S. Stevens Professor of Law, Cornell Law School
  • Pamela S. Karlan, Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law, Co-Director, Stanford Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, Stanford Law School
  • Leah Litman, Assistant Professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School
  • Amanda Shanor, Assistant Professor, Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania
  • David Strauss, Gerald Ratner Distinguished Service Professor of Law, Faculty Director of the Jenner & Block Supreme Court and Appellate Clinic, University of Chicago Law School
  • Laurence H. Tribe, Carl M. Loeb University Professor and Professor of Constitutional Law, Harvard Law School
  • Stephen I. Vladeck, A. Dalton Cross Professor in Law, University of Texas School of Law

Full bios are available in the amicus brief. The amici are represented by Joshua Matz, Dylan Cowin, Kyla Magun, and Michael Skocpol of Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP, and by Mark Rosenbaum, Judy London, Talia Inlender, Jesselyn Friley, and Amanda Savage of Public Counsel.

The amicus brief also underscores the broad agreement among public health experts that release is the only tenable option for the government to save the lives of detained immigrants, facility staff, and the broader public:

“Notably, the Government has not submitted a declaration from any independent experts in medicine stating that the conditions at Adelanto satisfy minimal protective standards. Among experts, it is widely recognized that social distancing is the single most important measure – by far – to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”

The full amicus brief is available here.

For the past two months, medical experts with PHR have warned of the “ticking time bomb” of ICE detention amid a pandemic, including through the filing of medical declarations in support of select lawsuits on behalf of detained immigrants around the country.


About Physicians for Human Rights (PHR)

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

About Public Counsel
Public Counsel is the nation’s largest not-for-profit law firm of its kind – filing groundbreaking civil rights litigation, advancing justice through legislative and policy advocacy, and providing direct legal services that help tens of thousands of low-income people every year in California and across the nation.

About Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP
Founded in July 2017 by renowned litigator Roberta Kaplan, Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP has quickly emerged as one of the most formidable litigation boutiques in the country, fusing high stakes commercial litigation with a groundbreaking public interest practice.


Kevin Short, Physicians for Human Rights,, +1-917-679-0110

Rekha Radhakrishnan, Public Counsel,, +1-832-628-2312

Katherine Bosley, Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP,, +1-571-271-5170

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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