HIV-positive immigrant remains detained in Sherburne County Jail despite COVID-19 pandemic

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An undocumented immigrant who is HIV positive is accusing federal immigration authorities of jeopardizing his health by unlawfully detaining him at the Sherburne County Jail during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to documents filed in federal court this week.

William Marroquin, 32, has been in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement since January, even though an immigration judge previously blocked the agency from returning him to his home country of Guatemala.

In March, Marroquin successfully argued that, if deported, he would be persecuted for being gay and that he had already lost several family members to violence in the Central American country.

"My sister had been killed by random violence over there (in Guatemala). She was four months pregnant when she got murdered," Marroquin said during a phone call from the jail with 5 INVESTIGATES.

While the government appeals the judge’s ruling, it has refused to release Marroquin from Sherburne County where ICE has a contract with the sheriff’s office to hold immigrant detainees at a rate of $95 a day. The jail has reported no cases of COVID-19, but Marroquin says his HIV-positive status puts him at high risk for the disease.

"The reality is that I’m dying slowly. My medication doesn’t mean it’s a cure for my disease," Marroquin said.

Sherburne County Sheriff Joel Brott declined an interview request, but his office says it has cut the jail population nearly in half in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In court records, jail administrators said they asked ICE to "discontinue bringing in any detainees to the (Sherburne County Jail) other than those determined … to be a public safety threat."

Marroquin has a prior conviction for drug possession in South Dakota.

"It is not a dangerous crime, and there’s no reason for ICE to assert that he’s a danger to the community," said Hanne Sandison with the Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis.

Sandison and a team of lawyers have been advocating for Marroquin’s release.

Attorneys recently sued ICE and Brott in federal court. The action, known as a habeas petition, accuses authorities of violating Marroquin’s constitutional rights to due process by continuing to hold him without a bond hearing.

"It is very frustrating that the only way to compel ICE to comply with the constitutional requirement that they do not detain people unnecessarily is go through the process of the habeas petition," said attorney Sunny Beddow. "It clogs up our courts, it takes a lot of time … it costs a lot of money."

In 2019, 5 INVESTIGATES highlighted the growing number of habeas petitions filed by immigrants in Minnesota who accused ICE and county jails of detaining them for months and even years.

A review of more than 160 habeas petitions, court documents and financial records revealed a system often plagued by delays, confusion and inefficiency.

One out of four cases involved immigrants who had misdemeanor or non-violent offenses or those who had not been charged with a crime at all.

The Deportation Business: More detainees, more challenges, more money for local jails

Now, advocates such as Sandison say the stakes for people like Marroquin are made higher by a pandemic that especially threatens those living in congregate living settings, such as jails and prisons.

"I think it’s atrocious that ICE continues to hold him in detention, given that people who are immunocompromised are in much greater danger if they were to contract COVID-19," Sandison said.

On a website dedicated to "guidance on COVID-19," ICE states:

"ICE has since evaluated its detained population based upon the CDC’s guidance for people who might be at higher risk for severe illness as a result of COVID-19 to determine whether continued detention was appropriate. Of this medical risk population, ICE has released over 900 individuals after evaluating their immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk, and national security concerns."

An ICE spokesperson declined to comment on Marroquin’s case but noted that the government can still try to deport him to another country while it appeals his withholding of removal to Guatemala.

ICE says in-custody cases, such as Marroquin’s, are expedited at the Bureau of Immigration Appeals, but the agency would not say how much longer he might be held.

"They are not releasing people," Marroquin said. "Our suspicion, unfortunately, is we have been (looked at) as a paycheck (rather) than a human being."