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Advocates Insist Migrant Detainees “Don’t Have to Die” in Custody – So ICE Releases Them First

by Jayson Hawkins

After Kesley Vial, a 23-year-old Brazilian immigrant, hanged himself at the Torrance County Detention Facility in Albuquerque on August 24, 2022, his death became one of four reported for the year by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The agency has reported a total of 41 detainee deaths since Congress mandated documentation in 2018. But an investigation by the Los Angeles Times not only found many preventable deaths of migrants in ICE custody but also some bureaucratic sleight-of-hand apparently designed to undercount detainee deaths. 

The death of Johanna Medina Leon is emblematic of the problems the investigation uncovered. An advocate for queer and transgender people in her native El Salvador, she worked for almost ten years with the Gay Sin Fronteras, an organization focused on ensuring HIV-positive patients get medical care. Medina Leon fled to the U.S. and presented herself at the border requesting asylum on April 14, 2019.

She was detained at New Mexico’s Otero County Processing Center. Within weeks she lost 18% of her body weight and was suffering from jaundice. After repeated attempts to get medical attention, she was finally seen by doctors on May 27, 2019. They tested her for hepatitis and HIV. When the latter test came back positive, she was rushed to an El Paso hospital, where she died four days later from sepsis and an internal fungal infection.

In the meantime, though, ICE officials worked at warp-speed to get Medina Leon paroled. The result: She was technically not in custody when she died. This means her death was not counted among ICE’s nine in-custody deaths reported to Congress that year.

In a lawsuit filed in 2021 against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), ICE’s parent agency, the American Civil Liberties Union demanded records from the agency that would detail the extent of its undercounting of in-custody deaths. In addition to Medina Leon, the suit names three other migrants who were allegedly released by ICE just before they died, including Martin Vargas Arellano, Jose Ibarra Bucio and Teka Gulema. See: American Civil Liberties Union v. U.S. Dep’t of Homeland Security Off. of Inspector General, USDC (D. D.C.), Case No. 1:21-cv-02627.

Medina Leon’s death from sepsis was not the first among ICE detainees. Roxsanna Hernandez died while detained by ICE from dehydration and complications from HIV in 2018, a month after arriving at the border and requesting asylum. Though ICE policy requires a medical screening within 12 hours of detention, Hernandez was not seen for three days and did not get an HIV test for three weeks, despite exhibiting typical symptoms.

Coleen Kivlahan, medical director of the Human Rights Asylum Clinic at the University of California at San Francisco, says deaths like these are preventable. “Young women don’t have to die of sepsis, for God’s sake.”

An ICE statement said Medina Leon’s death was “another unfortunate example of an alien who enters the United States with an untreated, unscreened medical condition,” and an internal investigation concluded there was “no misconduct by DHS staff or contractor personnel.”

Sources: ACLU New Mexico, Albuquerque Journal, American Immigration Lawyers Association, Los Angeles Times 

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Related legal case

American Civil Liberties Union v. U.S. Dep’t of Homeland Security Off. of Inspector General