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More Than 40 Immigrants Have Died in ICE Custody

The Obama administration was fairly aggressive when it came to identifying and deporting immigrants who entered the United States without documentation or overstayed their visa. The system for accomplishing these deportations involved a detention system, including various private contractors, run by ICE.

When the Trump administration came into office, this system was pushed beyond the breaking point when policy was changed to detaining even legal migrants from Central and South America. When previously migrants would be processed, given a date for an immigration hearing, then released with instructions, the Trump administration decided instead to incarcerate these migrants, often separating parents and children. The population of detained migrants peaked at around 55,000 persons in the Summer of 2019.

As the detention system began straining its limitations and Congress refused to authorize additional funding to increase capacity, the system began to buckle. It is now known that several hundred migrant children were separated from their parents, and no accounting was kept about the separations, meaning that ICE cannot find the parents to reunite families.

This slapdash approach to incarceration led to other, fatal failures as well. Because migrants are often not criminals, they are supposed to be guaranteed medical care in addition to a number of other rights that normal prisoners do not regularly enjoy. And when a detained migrant dies, his or her death must be publicly reported and investigated.

After ICE reported 25 deaths from the time Donald Trump took office until 2019, Buzzfeed began an investigation that uncovered shocking details about the level of neglect and abuse perpetrated on migrants.

Roxsana Hernandez died in May 2018 at a New Mexico detention facility operated by CoreCivic. Her death was initially listed as the result of cardiac arrest. However, a subsequent investigation found she had quickly lost 40 pounds immediately preceding her death, showed signs of severe dehydration and starvation, and had been denied access to antiretroviral medication necessary to treat her HIV infection. A separate private firm contracted by ICE to investigate her death appears to have offered to cover it up. “If you want me to back off,” a company analyst wrote, “I will modify the report accordingly. Let me know your druthers.”

The Eloy Detention Center in Arizona (also run by CoreCivic) and the Adelanto Detention Facility in California (operated by GEO Group) both had incidents where guards falsified logs showing that medically vulnerable persons were monitored when in fact they were not. After those persons died, one internal review noted, “During the 51-minute period, the officer documented three welfare checks, none of which were supported by video surveillance.”

CoreCivic has commented publicly on deaths like Ms. Hernandez’s by saying that it is not responsible for providing health care to detainees, as that function is sub-contracted to another corporation. However, providing care and monitoring the health of detainees often occurs outside the infirmary in a correctional setting, and such failures are often inter-related to detention policies.

Other failures were noted by materials released as part of Buzzfeed’s FOIA lawsuit. One man with no lower teeth and missing many of his upper teeth suffered malnutrition when staff failed to provide a specialized diet.

Another man fell out of his wheelchair, and nurses claimed he was faking or exaggerating his symptoms. The man died later that day.

A Jamaican man with an aggressive but treatable form of cancer was locked in solitary confinement for over a week without access to medical care and died a month later.

Often, detainees with no English proficiency are asked to sign documents, written in English, relating to their medical care. At least one death was traced back to a misunderstanding that arose from such a situation.

ICE maintains that it takes seriously the well-being of detainees, but its internal documentation belies this statement. Despite a dramatic dip in the detention population due to COVID-19 releases, 21 migrants died in the year ending September 30, 2020, a notable increase from the previous year.

This humanitarian crisis is exposing the dark heart of America’s leadership as a nation firmly wedded to incarceration and privatization. It’s time for a divorce. 


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