Judge Orders ICE to Release Medically Vulnerable Teenage Asylum Seeker After Nearly 1000 days of Unlawful Detention

After an excruciating 888 days in an ICE prison, Immigrant Defenders Law Center and Justice Action Center successfully obtained the release of Jose Hernandez Velasquez, a medically vulnerable 19-year-old who fled Guatemala when he was 16 to seek asylum in the U.S. Jose had been wrongfully held as an adult while still a minor, and was released because he was at increased risk to contract COVID-19 while in detention.

Los Angeles, CA — Yesterday, Jose Hernandez Velasquez, a 19-year-old who has been unlawfully jailed for nearly 1000 days after claiming asylum in the United States, was finally released from Adelanto Detention Facility to one of his lawyers, Lindsay Toczylowski, Executive Director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center (ImmDef). A Guatemalan native, Jose is medically vulnerable and at increased risk of infection and the resulting life-threatening complications from coronavirus. He arrived in the United States at the age of 16, but has been jailed for nearly 3 years due to the Trump Administration’s horrific and inhuman policies at the U.S. border. 

Jose’s case highlights the underlying injustices people are subjected to within the U.S. immigration court system when seeking asylum. He is one of the very few medically vulnerable people imprisoned by ICE that have been able to obtain release, despite multiple confirmed reports of positive COVID-19 staff and detainees across the nation. As of today, there are approximately 6 confirmed cases of people who tested positive for COVID-19 in ICE prison as well as 5 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among ICE employees who work at detention centers according to ICE (https://www.ice.gov/coronavirus). Jose was released after a request was made to both the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Federal District Court in Los Angeles to release him given his health conditions that put him at increased risk for COVID-19 exposure and death while in an ICE prison.

In 2017, Jose refused to join a local gang in his hometown in Guatemala and was subsequently shot in the stomach and left for dead on the street. As soon as he was well enough to travel, and barely 16 years old, he spent the next year on a solo journey to seek asylum in the United States in search of safety. ICE wrongfully held Jose for 300 days in adult maximum security on the basis of a faulty analysis of a dental exam that suggested he was 18 years old, when he was, in fact, a minor. During this time, Jose was forced to represent himself in his initial immigration court proceedings, despite not speaking English. He appeared before Los Angeles immigration judge (IJ) Tara Naselow-Nahas, who is notorious for fast-tracking deportation of asylum seekers and violating their right to due process. IJ Naselow ordered him removed, in a quick hearing that lacked basic procedural due process rights that we would expect in any courtroom in the United States, because Jose, an unrepresented minor at the time, could not complete his asylum application in English. ImmDef learned about Jose’s case after his deportation order and began representing him in April 2018.

ImmDef successfully stopped Jose from being unlawfully deported in December 2018 after multiple filings before the Board of Immigration Review and the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. ImmDef and pro bono co-counsel from Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP has since been representing Jose on his asylum claim now pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In October 2019, Justice Action Center and ImmDef filed a federal habeas corpus petition, along with the pro bono assistance of Mayer Brown LLP, seeking Jose’ release.

In the meantime, Jose spent 888 days in immigration custody. While detained, his health deteriorated significantly, and he developed hypertension, putting him at risk of a heart attack even though he is only a teenager, as well as depression.  Because of this, the court determined that Jose is now considered at increased risk of developing a serious or fatal COVID-19 infection.

Ultimately on March 27, 2020, Jose was added as a named plaintiff to the ACLU Foundation of Southern California lawsuit Robles, et al. v. Wolf, which led to District Court Judge T. Hatter ordering his immediate release from the tinderbox that is the Adelanto Detention Facility on April 2, 2020. Recognizing the growing threat COVID-19 presents for detainees like Jose who cannot undertake any of the protective measures ordered by the Center for Disease Control, Judge Hatter declared that Jose’s conditions of confinement are “unconstitutional.” For weeks health experts have called for the release of people in detention. There is a rising number of more than 38,000 people in ICE detention who remain at risk of COVID-19.

“We’re thrilled that Jose has finally been released from ICE detention, where he should never have been in the first place. Everything that could possibly go wrong for someone in this country’s immigration system has gone wrong for Jose,” said Esther Sung, Senior Litigator at Justice Action Center. “He was a minor looking for refuge from severe violence in Guatemala, and his so-called ‘reward’ for seeking safety in the U.S. was to be thrown into adult detention based on the trumped-up, faulty analysis of dental records. After he was pulled out, he was thrown in again on his 18th birthday. It has taken multiple lawsuits to get him released. At a time when coronavirus has everyone in the nation concerned about their health and safety, we are relieved that Jose — who developed health problems while in detention —  is now in a safer, more secure, more supportive environment.” 

Today is Jose’s first day of freedom after spending his entire adult life in ICE custodyIn his first moments of freedom, Jose shared, “I feel very happy to be free! I have been waiting for this for so long, I don’t even have words to say because I am so happy. Thank you to everyone that helped me, thank you for continuing to work until you managed to free me from Adelanto. Thank you for everything.” Jose shared with Lindsay on the drive back to Los Angeles from Adelanto that when the guard came to tell him that he needed to pack his things because he was about to be released, the remaining detainees burst into applause. 

ImmDef’s Executive Director Lindsay Toczylowski reflected, “ImmDef’s entire team has been fighting for Jose’s release since I met him as a scared kid sitting in an adult detention center in early 2018. His case demonstrates nearly everything that is wrong with the asylum system in the United States. One thing is abundantly clear now that he has been rescued from grave risk at Adelanto and that is: Seeking asylum should not be so hard that it requires dozens of attorneys, three separate federal lawsuits, multiple appeals, multiple court hearings and a young man losing 2.5 years of his life sitting in an ICE prison. Seeking asylum should not be this damn hard.” 

Jose will spend the next two weeks in quarantine before he will be reunited with a sponsor. Jose does not have any immediate family members in Southern California; his nearest family member is a cousin in the Bay Area. A GoFundMe has been created in his name to support his needs while he begins his new life in California and awaits his asylum hearing. The funds will be used towards basic necessities that include housing costs and food as he transitions into free life in California. Anyone who would like to contribute can do so at this link: gf.me/u/xuxdgy

About Justice Action Center: Justice Action Center (JAC) is a new nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting for greater justice for immigrant communities by combining litigation and storytelling. There is tremendous unmet need in the litigation landscape for immigrant communities. JAC is committed to bringing additional litigation resources to bear to address unmet needs in currently underserved areas. There is also untapped potential in how litigation can be combined with digital strategies to empower clients and change the corrosive narrative around immigrants.

About Immigrant Defenders Law Center: Immigrant Defenders Law Center (ImmDef) is a next-generation, 501(c)3 social justice law firm that defends our immigrant communities against injustices in the immigration court system. We believe that the right to counsel in deportation proceedings is a necessary step towards ensuring due process for all. Our model of universal representation is built on this principle. It is our long‐term goal to ensure that no immigrant is forced to go to court alone. With a team of 80 staff members, ImmDef has grown to become the largest non‐profit, pro bono provider of deportation defense in California serving 2,600 clients in 2019 with legal education and full-scale representation. Immdef offices are located in Los Angeles, Adelanto, Riverside, Santa Ana, and San Diego.


Tasha Moro
Justice Action Center

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