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John Peng L’19 fights for release of at-risk ICE detainees during COVID-19 crisis

May 31, 2020

John Peng L’19 was inspired to pursue a career in immigration law after participating in Practice Professor of Law Sarah Paoletti’s Transnational Legal Clinic.

As U.S. COVID-19 fatalities surge past 100,000, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s John Peng, L’19, is fighting to keep the virus from claiming the lives of some of our most vulnerable — immigrants in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention.

Prisons and other detention centers have predictably become petri dishes for the spread of COVID-19. Incarcerated people live in dangerously close quarters with limited access to hygiene products and personal protective equipment. To avert disaster, state and federal correctional facilities have released thousands of at-risk inmates determined to be non-violent and unlikely to recidivate. However, “despite public health experts sounding alarms that a ‘storm is coming’ within the nation’s detention facilities,” Peng wrote in a recent op-ed, “Immigration and Customs Enforcement has steadfastly resisted calls to depopulate its detention centers nationwide.”

In response to ICE’s inaction, Peng and his colleagues at Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York (PLSNY), where Peng is an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow, filed a habeus petition in the Western District of New York in March on behalf of 32 high-risk immigrants detained at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, NY. The court denied PLSNY’s petition but instructed ICE to begin providing regular testing for immigrant detainees.

In May, PLSNY partnered with the New York Civil Liberties Union to file Rivera de los Santos v. Wolf, a federal class-action lawsuit against ICE officials at the Batavia facility. Peng and his colleagues are demanding that all detainees over 65 or otherwise considered medically high-risk be released if ICE cannot implement adequate protective measures. One of many challenges Peng faces in advocating on behalf of individual detainees is ICE’s refusal to identify those who may be at higher risk due to preexisting health conditions. The Rivera de los Santos class likely consists of over a hundred immigrants currently detained in Batavia and will include any new arrivals to the facility.

Even before the pandemic, ICE had a troubling history of failing to meet basic standards for detainee health and safety, and Peng is now working with advocates around the country to hold the agency accountable. Barely a year out of law school, the pandemic has forced Peng to learn fast.

“I have no prior experience with federal litigation or habeus work,” Peng told the Immigrant Justice Corps. “We are learning as we go and reaching out to partners for support.”

Though his team is small, Peng is resolute. “We couldn’t sit still and do nothing,” he says.

Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Peng moved to the U.S. at the age of six and graduated from Columbia University with a degree in history. At the Law School, Peng was involved with the International Refugee Assistance Project and International Human Rights Advocates. As an International Summer Human Rights fellow, he worked at the Center for Migration and International Relations, an NGO based in Kathmandu, to advocate on behalf of Nepalese migrant workers.

Peng decided to pursue a career in immigration law after thrice participating in Practice Professor of Law Sarah Paoletti’s Transnational Legal Clinic, where he was exposed to a wide range of human rights advocacy projects and immigration cases.

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