Detained Migrants Win in Federal Court: Judge Greenlights Nationwide Class Action Lawsuit

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Tens of thousands of immigrants denied medical care and disability accommodations by the federal government will have their day in court

View from behind bars inside ICE detention center
View from behind bars inside ICE detention center


April 16, 2020 – RIVERSIDE, Calif. – A federal judge ruled today that a nationwide class action lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can proceed, greenlighting a challenge to ICE’s system-wide failure to provide standard medical and mental health care and disability accommodations for people in its custody.

U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal issued the ruling in the lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC), Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP and Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP. The plaintiffs seek zero monetary damages and instead only an end to the inhumane and traumatic experience of ICE detention affecting tens of thousands across the country.

Judge Bernal denied the government’s motion to divide the nationwide lawsuit into 15 individual cases in eight district courts. He also denied ICE’s motion to strike the 200-page complaint, which was filed in the U.S District Court for the Central District of California in August 2019.

The ruling comes amid the spread of Covid-19 in detention centers, a dangerous scenario that doctors and public health experts across the country have warned will only be made worse by ICE’s lack of pre-existing medical care and substandard detention center conditions. On March 25, the groups filed an emergency preliminary injunction motion in the case requiring ICE to immediately fix numerous deficiencies in its Covid-19 response, such as inadequate staffing, resources and oversight. The motion further seeks the immediate release of medically vulnerable people if  ICE cannot or will not take immediate steps to protect those who are in its custody. Judge Bernal has yet to rule on that injunction.  

“Today, the court rejected ICE’s false narrative that our plaintiffs’ stories represent just a few individual problems,” said Lisa Graybill, SPLC deputy legal director. “The court saw through ICE’s deliberate mischaracterization of our case. This is the first step in holding ICE to account for its appalling treatment of the tens of thousands of immigrants needlessly incarcerated and languishing in its prisons around the country.”

According to the lawsuit, ICE has failed to provide detained migrants in over 150 facilities nationwide with safe and humane conditions, as required by agency standards, federal law and the U.S. Constitution. Numerous reports, including accounts by internal government investigators, detail the lack of sufficient medical and mental health care treatment, ultimately resulting in untreated medical needs, prolonged suffering and preventable death. ICE’s punitive use of segregation violates the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The agency’s failure to ensure that detained immigrants with disabilities are provided accommodations and do not face discrimination violates Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

“Mentally, they are killing us,” said plaintiff Ruben Mencias Soto. “What I am living and what I am seeing is not only my situation. This is unjust as a system. [The government] is falling to the lowest level with ICE.”

Mencias Soto, who has been detained at Adelanto ICE Processing Center in California for over a year, has dislocated and herniated discs in his back. He has had his wheelchair and crutches taken away by detention staff, leaving him without a device to help him walk and causing immense pain.

“Across the country, ICE continually fails to provide basic medical care and necessary disability accommodations to people in immigration detention – putting thousands of people in life-threatening danger every day. From holding people with disabilities in solitary confinement solely because of their medical needs to denying patients in detention doctor-ordered emergency medical care, ICE has demonstrated incompetence and cruelty toward people with disabilities. Disability Rights Advocates is committed to fighting for the civil rights of those in custody until ICE complies with the law,” said Stuart Seaborn, Managing Director of Litigation, Disability Rights Advocates.

“ICE’s failure to ensure that private prison companies like the GEO Group adequately take care of people in their custody has been an open secret for a long time,” said Timothy Fox, co-executive director of the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center. “We are pleased that the court will allow us to move forward and hopefully end the impunity with which this agency and its private operators have been acting for too long.”

Plaintiff Jose Baca Hernandez underscored that the goal of the case is to “improve health for me and the rest of the people here [in detention]. This is not only for me. It’s so everyone here can be healthy.” During his time in custody, ICE failed to provide Baca Hernandez–a blind man–with effective communication. He has been forced to rely on his cellmates, attorneys, and guards to read documents, including those related to his medical care and immigration case.

Plaintiff Luis Rodriguez Delgadillo, who has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, had reached a considerable measure of mental health stability before his detention. In detention, however, his shifting medication regime, lack of therapy and the failure of mental health staff to mitigate stressors have caused his mental health to noticeably decline.

This case is about fighting to ensure “we all can get better treatment,” Rodriguez Delgadillo said. “Some people don’t have the means or are scared to speak, so we fight for everyone else.”

The parties will work with the court to set the schedule for the litigation of the case.

See plaintiffs’ opposition to defendants’ motion to sever and dismiss, transfer actions, and strike portions of the complaint here.

See the complaint here and all other filings in the case here.


Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC) is a nonprofit membership organization whose goal is to ensure that everyone can fully and independently participate in our nation’s civic life without discrimination based on race, gender, disability, religion, national origin, age, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), founded in 1993, is the leading national nonprofit disability rights legal center.  Its mission is to advance equal rights and opportunity for people with all types of disabilities nationwide. DRA represents people with the full spectrum of disabilities in complex, system-changing, class action cases.  Thanks to DRA’s precedent-setting work, people with disabilities across the country have dramatically improved access to health care, employment, transportation, education, disaster preparedness planning, voting, housing, and juvenile justice.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society.  Through its Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, the SPLC provides direct representation to immigrants in remote, rural detention centers in two of the states with the highest numbers of detained individuals, Louisiana and Georgia.

Orrick has 27 offices worldwide, and focuses on serving the Technology, Energy & Infrastructure and Finance sectors globally. Clients worldwide call on Orrick’s teams for forward-looking commercial advice on transactions, litigation and compliance matters.

Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP is an international law firm of more than 700 attorneys with offices in New York, Washington, Houston, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Chicago, Paris, London, Frankfurt, Brussels, Milan and Rome. The Firm is headquartered in New York City at 787 Seventh Avenue. Tel: 212.728.8000.


Jeff Migliozzi, Southern Poverty Law Center, / 334-303-1261

Charles Kretchmer Lutvak, Disability Rights Advocates, / 917-748-3096

Julie Yates, Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, / 303-945-3204