Eighteen immigrants at an ICE detention center in Alabama sued for emergency release last week. The plaintiffs claim their pre-existing health conditions put them at high risk for COVID-19.
One of those detainees is Connecticut father of three Bakhodir Madjitov. He came to the U.S. from Uzbekistan in 2006 on an artist visa. He applied for asylum, and while he waited for a decision on his claim, he married a U.S. citizen named Madina Mamadjonova.
Now they have three small sons, but Mamadjonova says her husband has never held their youngest. ICE arrested him when she was 39 weeks pregnant.
“This is just a nightmare and this is [an] unforgettable time of my life,” says Mamadjonova.
Madjitov’s asylum claim had been rejected and he was issued a removal order in 2013, before his marriage claim could go through. He continued to care for his family and work as a home health aide with a legal work permit while he appealed his immigration case. Early one December morning in 2017, ICE came to his home in Connecticut and took him into custody. For more than two years, he has bounced between ICE detention centers. He’s currently at the Etowah County Jail in Gadsden, Alabama.
“When he calls me he says, ‘I’m so worried, I’m so worried, but I don’t want to die in here,” says Mamadjonova.
Mamadjonova still lives in East Windsor, Connecticut, with their sons. She says she’s scared for her husband because he has a heart condition and hypertension, which are underlying issues the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider high risk for the coronavirus. She also says her husband—and at least three cellmates—were only recently issued face masks. She worries about their hygiene during the pandemic.
“Even I don’t know right now [if] my husband’s cell has soap or not,” she says. “They have everything limited or not at all.”
A spokesman for ICE says allegations of lack of soap or supplies are “generally” false. Representatives from the Etowah County Jail did not respond to requests for comment.
Attorney Jessica Vosburgh is legal director of Adelante Alabama, an immigrant and laborer advocacy group. Vosburgh doesn’t think detainees can practice social distancing while in ICE custody.
“I would say it’s impossible for any of the ICE detention centers in the country, and particularly Etowah, to comply with CDC guidelines,” Vosburgh says.
Vosburgh filed the lawsuit, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Immigration Project, against the Etowah County Sheriff and ICE. The lawsuit calls for the release of Bakhodir Madjitov and 17 other detainees considered high-risk for COVID-19.
“Courts around the country have already taken action to order the release of medically vulnerable detainees from ICE detention centers, prisons and jails,” Vosburgh says. “This would simply be adding another voice to that judicial consensus that’s already emerging.”
ICE Spokesman Bryan Cox could not comment on pending litigation, but he said in an email to WSHU that ICE reduced its detainee population by about 20% since March. Vosburgh says that still leaves tens of thousands of detainees in ICE custody and that’s not enough to protect her clients in Etowah.
“It’s really just a question of when, not if, there’s a COVID-19 outbreak inside the jail,” Vosburgh says.
The Gadsden Times in Alabama reports the Etowah County Sheriff said there were no cases of coronavirus at his facilities last week, which he shared during a virtual meeting where he asked public officials to consider hazard pay for corrections officers.
ICE’s Brian Cox could not confirm how many detainees at Etowah have been tested for the virus, but he says about 1,000 have been tested nationwide. He also says ICE released 700 detainees with underlying health conditions on a case-by-case basis.
Bakhodir Madjitov requested a release in March due to his health. ICE says he was denied because he resisted deportation last June.
Madjitov’s lawyer in Connecticut, Diana Blank, says her client fears for his life if sent back to Uzbekistan “because of the alleged wrongdoing of a relative.”
Madjitov had a temporary stay of removal last summer in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Blank says ICE officers took him to Kennedy Airport and tried to force him onto a flight.
“When he told them that he wasn’t going on that plane to Uzbekistan, where he has a very real fear of being tortured and very possibly killed, they roughed him up and they ended up tasing him twice,” Blank says.
He wound up in the hospital. ICE confirmed Madjitov has not been charged with a crime related to the incident. Blank says he has no criminal record and he’s trying to appeal his immigration case in the 11th Circuit Court.
“He’s been living in hell in detention for over two years,” she says, “His misery has been compounded by the threat of never actually walking out of that place because his life is in danger.”
Blank says during the pandemic, this emergency lawsuit is the best hope for Madjitov to return safely to his family in Connecticut.
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