Judge rules thousands of ICE documents in COVID case to remain confidential — for now

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Jose A. Iglesias/Miami Herald/TNS

MIAMI — More than 30,000 immigration documents regarding thousands of migrants detained in three South Florida detention centers during the COVID-19 pandemic will be classified as confidential, a Miami judge has ruled.

During a court hearing held by phone Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman granted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s request to keep about 30,000 documents — or nearly 100,000 pages’ worth of emails, letters and documents that ICE had marked as confidential — unavailable to the public, at least for now.

“If we had the luxury of time and we had many months … I would say that it seems like (ICE) made too broad of a use of the confidential designation and I would go back and ask (ICE) to review all those designations and then come up with a revised production, eliminating those confidential designations which (they) incorrectly used. But we don’t have that luxury of time,” Goodman said. “But under the present scenario, I’m not going to require it,” he said. “But things change. … This is subject to be revisited.”

He noted that depositions in the ongoing class-action lawsuit — which seeks the release of thousands of immigration detainees who are held, or have been held, at the Krome Processing Center in West Miami-Dade, the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach and the Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic — will begin next week.

Though the documents marked confidential by ICE won’t be visible in the public docket, attorneys representing the detainees will have access to them, but will be prohibited from discussing them with anyone outside their legal teams.

The six national immigration law firms representing the detainees — the University of Miami’s immigration law clinic, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Rapid Defense Network in New York, Americans for Immigrant Justice, the Legal Aid Service of Broward County, and Washington, D.C.-based law firm King & Spalding — told the judge that the decision to keep the documents confidential “complicates” their ability to use them as the case moves toward the upcoming trial, which is scheduled for January 2021.

During Wednesday’s hearing — which was interrupted by the sounds of untraceable and random disco music — ICE also requested permission to redact about 7,000 of the 30,000 documents, specifically emails, group chats and internal memos that would reveal decision-making conversations about internal protocols and people held in detention.

Goodman denied that request, but ruled that the agency could redact content that would disclose law enforcement techniques that could compromise public safety. He emphasized that ICE would have to let him know by Thursday exactly what officials plan on redacting and to avoid “nitpicking irrelevant minutiae.” Details on the contents of documents were not discussed.

In July, U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Cooke appointed an independent fact-finder to investigate possible “inhumane conditions, deliberate indifference and cruel and unusual punishment” at Krome, BTC and Glades. The designation of a “special master” was in response to a motion filed by immigration lawyers accusing ICE of violating the courts’ April 2020 order. The accusations included: co-mingling COVID-positive detainees with individuals who have not been confirmed as having the disease, failing to provide cleaning supplies and masks to detainees and not educating detainees about the pandemic. The detainees and their attorneys also accuse the agency of not promoting or enforcing social distancing within the detention centers.

As of Wednesday, ICE data shows that 182 have tested positive for COVID-19 at Krome, 132 tested positive at Broward and 164 at Glades.

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©2020 Miami Herald