Immigrant Deaths While In Detention Kept Under Wraps

Over 100 immigrants have died while being held in detention by the by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since 2003. But according to a New York Times investigation, documents indicate that many ICE officials – many of whom still work in key positions at the agency – have long tried to cover up the <"">death toll.

Documents – including confidential memos, BlackBerry messages and emails – for The New York Times investigation were obtained by the paper and the American Civil Liberties Union through a Freedom of Information Request.

According to the Times, many of the ICE immigrant deaths appear to be the result of mistreatment, substandard care or abuse. For example, in 2007, investigators from the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility concluded that unbearable, untreated pain had been a significant factor in the suicide of a 22-year-old detainee at the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey. In one instance, medication records of the inmate, a Salvadoran, were falsified to indicate he had been given Motrin. According to the falsified records, the inmate had been administered the medication after he was already dead. The probe also found that medical care at that facility was so bad that other detainees were at risk.

The findings of that investigation were never made public, nor was the inmates family ever made aware of them, the Times said. A spokesperson for the jail, which houses over 1,500 inmates, would not tell The Times if any changes had been made since that death.

That same year, an African immigrant had suffered a skull fracture while being detained at the privately run Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey. According to the Times, the man was left in an isolation cell without treatment for more than 13 hours before an ambulance was called.

What were ICE officials most concerned with while he lay there after emergency brain surgery? The cost of his care. According to the Times, 10 agency officials in Washington and Newark explored sending him to Guinea, or renewing his canceled work permit in hopes of tapping into Medicaid or disability benefits. Officials finally settled on a “humanitarian release” to relatives who had already protested that they could not care for the man. Prior to the release, the man died.

A memo summarizing the discussion over the African immigrant also indicated the officials were equally concerned with “increased scrutiny and/or media exposure.” A day after the death, an ICE memo recommended that the agency take the unusual step of paying to send the body to Guinea for burial, to prevent his widow from showing up in the United States for a funeral and drawing news coverage. An ICE spokesperson also rebuffed a Times reporter’s questions about the detainee, and the same spokesperson filed a report warning top managers at the federal agency about the reporter’s interest.

The Times investigation details several other instances of abuse and neglect leading to deaths in ICE detention. It also makes a good case for critics who argue that, despite its claims that it is reforming, the culture of secrecy has endured. Taken as a whole, the New York Times report raises serious questions about the ability of ICE to oversee itself.

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