A 31-year-old man from Cuba detained at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos sued Immigration and Customs Enforcement this week, alleging the agency refused to release him even though he won withholding of removal from an immigration judge in November.
His attorney confirmed on Thursday afternoon that a Department of Justice attorney informed him ICE intended to release his client. The news came only after the agency learned of the lawsuit filed on the detainee’s behalf.
Attorney Peter McGraw filed a habeas petition on behalf of O.B.V. on Wednesday alleging that Department of Homeland Security attorneys repeatedly misrepresented his client’s detention status to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), claiming the man was not detained despite refusing to release him from the facility. The response from a government attorney means that ICE will likely release O.B.V. after seven months in immigration detention that his attorney says never should have happened.
O.B.V. was taken to a “tent-like detention structure located several miles from Brownsville, Texas” following his Nov. 12 hearing before an immigration judge in which he was granted withholding of removal, according to the lawsuit. Officials held him at the facility for one night before transporting him to PIDC, where he was detained despite winning relief.
The man’s asylum case is on appeal. Though O.B.V. was granted relief, the immigration judge denied his asylum application based on the Trump administration’s transit ban. The policy, currently being challenged in federal court, bars those who transited a third country and did not first apply for asylum in that country from obtaining the protection in the United States.
“He’s obviously got a meritorious asylum case. The judge has already ruled in his favor and ICE was detaining him anyway with no apparent justification,” said McGraw. “The fact that they were filing stuff with the BIA saying that he’s not detained reveals how arbitrary this detention really is.”
The presence of COVID inside the facility and the lack of adequate protective measures available to detainees placed O.B.V. at significant risk, his attorney said.
On Thursday, ICE reported a total of 26 positive COVID-19 cases inside PIDC. Twenty-three of those cases were under isolation or monitoring. Reports have surfaced of nearly 120 detainees on hunger strike, and detainees in touch with advocates and attorneys have reported that half of the facility’s 16 dormitories are under quarantine.
ICE declined to provide specific information on the number of quarantined detainees but confirmed that two individuals inside the facility began a hunger strike on June 3.
McGraw isn’t quite sure what was happening at the agency that would cause ICE to “falsely and repeatedly” claim that his client wasn’t detained. ICE’s attorney filed two documents with the BIA in their appeal of the immigration judge’s decision, both claiming that O.B.V. was not detained. The first of those documents was a notice of appeal; ICE then filed a motion asking for more time to file briefs. “As justification for getting more time, they said that [O.B.V.] was not detained and so he wouldn’t experience any prejudice from the grant of this extension of time,” said the attorney.
“Of course, he did experience prejudice from that because he’s detained and there’s an outbreak of coronavirus cases at PIDC. They either intentionally detained him and were making misrepresentations at the Board of Immigration Appeals, or they were recklessly detaining him when they should know that he was detained.”