John Peng is a first year Justice Fellow with Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York (PLSNY) in Albany. For the past two months, he has been working tirelessly for the release of detained immigrants at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, NY who are at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.
John and the team at PLSNY were convinced soon after the pandemic outbreak that conditions at the Buffalo Detention Facility could deteriorate quickly. “We wanted to head off the calamity that could unfold. The facility and its employees were not equipped to respond to the crisis.” The conditions and treatment at the detention center in Batavia are so poor, that it has a reputation for being worse than the correctional facilities.
“We have a small team here but we couldn’t sit still and do nothing,” he said. When John and his colleagues saw that the ACLU had filed habeas petitions in federal courts around the country to get detained immigrants released, he said, “We just thought, is this something we could try in Batavia? We knew that we had many clients who would fit those vulnerable categories.”
With ICE unwilling to put in processes to identify high risk detainees needing protections, PLSNY and other advocates identified 32 detainees who are over 50 years old with high risk medical conditions. In March, PLSNY filed a habeas petition in the Western District of New York on their behalf. “Unless we filed a lawsuit and named our clients who are vulnerable, they weren’t going to do the rational thing and release those who were at higher risk.” Advocating every way he could, John also published an op-ed with The Buffalo News to raise awareness.
Meanwhile, as cases of COVID-19 drastically rose across New York, transfers into and out of the Buffalo facility continued. “We’ve seen them transfer our clients to facilities as far away as Texas, Nevada and Louisiana. We suspect that some of those clients had symptoms while at the Buffalo facility, and then tested positive at the second facility.” John and his colleagues also learned that detainees were being transferred from NYC, where the outbreak has been the worst, to Buffalo.
Determined to zealously advocate for their clients, on May 18th, PLSNY partnered with the New York Civil Liberties Union to file a federal class action lawsuit, Rivera de Los Santos v. Wolf. This lawsuit seeks class-wide relief and demands that ICE provide precautionary measures to all vulnerable individuals at the Buffalo facility, including any new arrivals.
On May 20th, one week after a videoconference evidentiary hearing from the Buffalo facility, the district court denied PLSNY’s habeas petition. However, the court instructed ICE to provide regular testing for immigrant detainees at Buffalo, besides the existing orders to effectuate social distancing.
John and his colleagues are now working with advocates around the country, including the legal team that brought Fraihat vs U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which ordered ICE to proactively create “minimum acceptable conditions” that all facilities must follow to ensure the safety of medically vulnerable immigrants who remain in custody, and evaluate eligible individuals for release. To date, none of these measures have been implemented at the Buffalo facility. John hopes to use this ruling to keep ICE accountable.
Less than a year into his Fellowship John said the COVID-19 crisis has meant learning as he goes. “I have no prior experience with federal litigation or habeas work. We are learning as we go and reaching out to partners for support. Despite all the inherent stresses, I’m really grateful that I get to work on these advocacy efforts from the relative security and comfort of my apartment. It’s also been great to have the institutional support of IJC to push through this work.”