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U.S. Homeland Security Illegally Drugged Immigrants for Deportation

Until recently, immigrants destined for deportation due to their illegal residency status in the United States faced the possibility of being drugged before leaving. Since 2003, there have been more than 250 cases where psychotropic drugs were inappropriately administered to deportees, according to an investigative report by the Washington Post.
The Department of Homeland Security’s newly-created Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has been administering “pre-flight cocktails” so powerful that some deportees needed wheelchairs and other medical assistance upon arriving back in their home country.

Officially, such sedations were portrayed as a measure of “last resort.” In reality the opposite was true. The Post was able to obtain the records of 67 deportees who were sedated in fiscal year 2007. Of those, 53 were administered the cocktail, 48 of whom had no documented history of violence. Each detainee given the injections was accompanied by a medical escort and evaluated by a mental health expert in aviation medicine. But that doesn’t justify the questionable way that ICE used such involuntary medications.

Yousif Nageib, a deportee, was being transported back to Sudan in January 2007. The entry in his medical file states, “DT calm at this time.” The log also notes that Nageib “is handcuffed and states he will do what we say.” Just before takeoff, Nageib was injected with a three-drug cocktail. The reason listed in his file, by medical director Timothy T. Shack, amounted to a single word: “problem.”

Washington Post researchers found that 93 deportees, with no record of mental illness, were injected in 2007. Haldol was the drug used in 50 of those cases, sometimes in large doses. The cocktail also included the drugs Ativan and Cogentin.

Haldol and Ativan are powerful anti-anxiety medications. Cogentin is designed to counter muscle spasms and rigidity, which are side effects caused by Haldol.

Nigel Podley teaches international human rights law at the University of Essex in England. He also used to work for the UN as a special investigator on torture.
“In the history of oppression, using haloperidol is kind of like detaining people in Abu Ghraib,” the Iraqi prison notorious for torturing prisoners, said Podley. He went on to describe the use of Haldol as a “disabling chemical” that affects “one’s psychological well-being.”

Philip Seeman, a specialist in psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto, was even more blunt. “[P]rescribing Haldol ... [to people who are not psychotic] is medically and ethically wrong,” he said.

Seeman explained that Haldol is not a drug used to calm typical emotional anxiety. Rather, Haldol would be used to calm an emotionally violent person such as one who had overdosed on PCP. Even then, psychotic patients with a tolerance for the drug are seldom given more than 19 milligrams a day. Records show that several of the ICE deportees received up to 40 milligrams during their trip home.

It’s not as if U.S. officials didn’t know their actions were wrong. Under the Clinton administration, a legal memo from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, issued in November 2000, forbade the use of “chemical restraints in which medication is not clinically indicated....”

However, a post-September 11, 2001 initiative under the Bush administration tossed such guidelines aside. In March 2002, two legal opinions were offered to administration officials. The first option stated, “seek a court order ... in every case where the alien’s medication is not therapeutically justified.” The second suggested creating a regulation that authorized the use of drugs by ICE officials with a warning to deportees that sedation might be used.

Both options were rejected. Instead, in May 2003 the Homeland Security department created its own policy which stated, “[A]n ICE detainee with or without a diagnosed psychiatric condition who displays overt or threatening aggressive behavior ... may be considered a combative detainee and can be sedated if appropriate under the circumstances.”

This controversial position met with resistance from the global community. One deportee who was sedated before his trip from Colorado to Guinea was due to receive an injection during a stopover in Belgium. According to the trip log, Belgium officials “approached and informed [it was] illegal to medicate detainee against their will in Belgium....”
A similar incident occurred in France when ICE escorts attempted to inject a deportee a second time. French officials refused to allow the injection. When the prisoner became agitated the pilot refused to allow him onto the connecting flight. The prisoner was returned to the U.S., but was deported five weeks later after being shot up with Haldol.

Only after pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has the current administration altered its stance on the involuntary medication issue. In May 2007 the chief of psychiatry for the Dept. of Homeland Security halted “all planned non-psychiatric behavioral escorts.” One month later, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California filed suit on behalf of two drugged detainees, Raymond Soeoth and Amadou Lamine Diouf. Both had been recipients of injections while in ICE custody in California during deportation proceedings.

ICE Assistant Secretary Julie Myers acknowledged the issue of involuntarily medicating deportees during a Senate hearing in Sept. 2007. “I am aware of, and deeply concerned about reports that past practices may not have conformed to ICE detention standards,” she said, while contending that many of the drugged deportees had been “combative.”

On January 9, 2008, ICE’s health division issued a memo stating, “[Homeland Security] may only involuntarily sedate an alien to facilitate removal where the government has obtained a court order. There are no exceptions to this policy. Emergency or exigent circumstances are not grounds for departures from this policy.”

Based upon this policy change, the ACLU settled its lawsuit against the Dept. of Homeland Security in March 2008. As part of the settlement Diouf received $50,000 and Soeoth was paid $5,000 and allowed to stay in the United States for at least two more years. See: Diouf v. Chertoff, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:07-cv-03977-TJH-CT.

How well the recent policy changes are working has yet to be determined. But the changes were definitely needed, since past records indicate that most deportees who received involuntary injections were neither psychotic nor violent. It is supremely ironic that the U.S. government, which has waged a domestic war on drugs for decades, abandoned the moral high-ground and forcibly drugged immigration deportees without justification.

“We are very happy that the government recognized that their barbaric sedation policy was wrong,” stated ACLU attorney Ahilan Arulanantham. “This has been a shameful chapter in the country’s immigration history.”

Sources: Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, CNN

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Related legal case

Diouf v. Chertoff