A 26-year-old Mexican immigrant who’s been granted asylum but remains in a detention center is asking a federal court to release him amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Francisco Morales Torres has spent the past year and a half locked up at the Dodge County jail in Juneau, Wisconsin, under the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
An immigration judge in Chicago granted Morales Torres asylum in 2019 and again in February, but government prosecutors have appealed both rulings. As those appeals make their way through the courts, Morales Torres — who has anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses — is unlikely to be released from ICE custody.
His lawyers have turned to the District Court of Eastern Wisconsin to win his release, arguing his prolonged detention violates the due process clause of the Constitution and puts him at risk of contracting COVID-19.
“A lot of us in here already didn’t know when we were going to see our families again, but now with the coronavirus, there’s an added fear of dying,” Morales Torres said in a phone call from Dodge County jail Wednesday. “We don’t know what’s going on. It’s only a matter of time before something happens.”
ICE declined to comment for this story citing pending litigation.
Court records show Morales Torres came to the United States in 2007 at age 13. He entered the country without proper authorization and was later taken into ICE custody and placed in deportation proceedings in September 2018 after several run-ins with the law, including a conviction for possession of a stolen vehicle.
While in detention, Morales Torres was granted asylum by Immigration Judge Kathryn De Angelis in April 2019 based on fears of being persecuted in Mexico for his sexual orientation and because he has acute psychiatric illnesses.
Government prosecutors appealed the ruling, and the case was returned to De Angelis in October 2019.
Five months later, De Angelis again granted Morales Torres protection from deportation as “he will face a substantial risk of torture if he is removed to Mexico because of his severe mental health illnesses, his lack of familial support, and his sexual orientation,” she wrote.
Prosecutors appealed De Angelis’ second ruling, which remains pending.
Keren Zwick, one of three attorneys at the National Immigrant Justice Center working on Morales Torres’ case, said it could take more than a year before the courts get through both appeals. Zwick worries that by then the coronavirus will have reached Dodge County.
“These facilities routinely take in people from other county jails or detention centers where outbreaks of the virus have been confirmed,” she said. “Congregate settings like these are ill-equipped to handle the virus.”
As of last week, there were 30,000 immigrants in ICE custody. So far, the agency has tested 995 of them for the coronavirus and 449 tested positive, including 12 at a county jail in downstate Illinois.
Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.