A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday nullified an injunction issued by a Riverside-based federal judge requiring U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to establish options for releasing undocumented immigrants from detention centers where COVID risks were high.

In a 2-1 decision, the appellate panel ruled that U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal overstepped when he granted a preliminary injunction in April 2020 aimed at ICE’s detainment practices, which Bernal believed were ripe for modification to reduce coronavirus exposure risks.

Judge Daniel Bress, writing for the majority, said that Bernal’s injunction, which targeted ICE operations nationwide, was misplaced, and there was no justification for making the agency appear to be engaged in “reckless disregard on a national basis.”

Bernal’s directive had been in response to petitions from immigrants’ rights attorneys seeking to have their clients released from crowded federal detention facilities while they awaited disposition of their asylum applications.

Immigrants’ rights groups argued that the detainees were being subjected to mistreatment by having them in locations where viral loads might be higher, and the spread of the contagion greater.

ICE representatives stated at the time that the judge was basing his determination on speculation, and that by permitting untold numbers of border crossers to walk away from custody would set a bad precedent with lasting repercussions.

Bress said the plaintiffs did not make a compelling case for an immediate overhaul of ICE procedures.

In her lone dissent, Judge Marsha Berzon countered that Bernal was urging ICE to adjust its policies while leaving the agency with ample latitude to decide how and when to grant releases.

It was unclear how many releases were permitted based on the injunction.

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