ICE accused of 'dumping' sick detainees to avoid reporting deaths
ACLU prepares lawsuit after federal immigration agency ignores request for documents
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal complaint—a prelude to a lawsuit—against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after the agency failed to release documents linked to what the ACLU called a practice of "dumping" sick people from custody when their deaths are imminent.
In April, the ACLU filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act asking for dozens of records from ICE, including the medical records of four detainees who died at hospitals days after they were released from the agency's custody. The ACLU argued over the last few years, ICE released dozens of people before they died, "allowing the agency to avoid reporting their deaths to the public, avoid investigation, and avoid medical costs for people in its custody."
The 23-page complaint was filed Tuesday by the civil rights law firm Hoq Law on behalf on the ACLU and the ACLU of Southern California after their FOIA request went "unanswered for over 60 days." Federal law requires an agency to acknowledge a FOIA request within 20 days.
Last year, a federal judge in New York lambasted ICE for "thumbing its nose" at the court after he ordered the agency to comply with FOIA requests from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a non-partisan project based at Syracuse University.
"The public has the right to know about ICE’s shameful patient dumping practices," said Michael Kaufman, an ACLU attorney in California. "The federal government cannot evade responsibility for the fatal health conditions people suffer in its custody."
The ACLU sought her records, as well as the medical records for three other detainees who suffered illnesses while in ICE custody and died "shortly after they were suddenly and inexplicably released from ICE custody."
ICE did not respond to a request for comment from Tucson Sentinel, however, in previous cases, the agency has refused to comment on pending litigation.
In a statement on the agency's website, ICE officials said they take "very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care, including those who come into ICE custody with prior medical conditions, or who have never before received appropriate medical care."
"While fatalities in ICE custody occur at a small fraction of the national average for detained populations in federal or state custody, any death that happens in ICE custody is a cause for concern," agency officials said. Following a death, ICE's own Office of Professional Responsibility reviews the death, including an "objective examination of the facts and circumstances surrounding" a death to determine "whether or not the relevant detention standards were complied with and to identify any other areas of concern regarding the individual’s care and custody."
Additionally, following a death ICE is required to inform Congress and non-governmental organizations, and posts a news release within two business days.
Most recently, a 36-year-old Mexican man died in the early morning of July 8 after he suddenly collapsed at a detention facility in Florence, Arizona.
Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times reported that Johana Medina Leon, a 25-year-old transgender woman was released by ICE while her health "was in free fall," and died soon after in a hospital in El Paso, leaving questions about how the agency manages sick detainees.
"For years, media reports have documented multiple occasions in which ICE has released detained immigrants from custody on their death beds," the ACLU wrote. "ICE, however, has not reported or disclosed the deaths of these individuals. This practice is consistent with reports finding that ICE has a 'culture of secrecy' that contributes to a failure to report and disclose deaths and detention conditions leading to those deaths."
ICE’s practices "raise questions of significant public concern regarding its failure to account and take responsibility for deaths of detained immigrants, including those who fall ill in custody and are released from custody upon their imminent death," the ACLU wrote.
During 2020, ICE reported the highest death toll in immigration detention in 15 years, driven largely by the peak of the first wave of COVID-19. According to ICE, there are 23,753 people in ICE detention, and currently, 652 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
However, the ACLU argued the number of total deaths of detainees is "likely much higher than reported by ICE" because the agency has "released individuals from custody on their death beds."
"The deaths of these individuals are not reported by ICE," the ACLU said.
"ICE’s under-reporting of detainees who would have died under ICE’s custody, but-for their twelfth-hour release has dire consequences," the ACLU said. "ICE is required to report all in-custody deaths to the public and release investigatory reports of all in-custody detainee deaths within 90 days of the person’s death."
"By releasing detainees at the last minute, ICE avoids reporting their deaths to the public, investigating the circumstances of their deaths, and paying for their medical costs," the group wrote, arguing the practice "denies families and the public at large their rights to know what passes for medical care in ICE facilities."
Leon, 25-year-old transgender woman, was detained at an ICE facility in Otero County, New Mexico in 2019. While in custody she "complained of health issues for a month," and tested positive for HIV, the ACLU wrote. After seven weeks in custody, she suffered from chest pains and was taken to the hospital where ICE released her from custody. She died four days later of pneumonia, the ACLU wrote.
Her death was not recorded in that year's deaths by ICE because she had been "hurriedly released from custody" while hospitalized, the LA Times reported.
The ACLU also sought records for Martin Vargas Arellano, a 55-year-old man who was detained at a ICE facility in Adelanto, California. Suffering from diabetes, hypertension, gout, and hepatitis C, Arellano contracted COVID-19 in 2020, and suffered a stroke while in ICE detention. Officials released him from custody, and he died in a hospital three days later.
They also sought records for Jose Ibarra Bucio, a 27-year-old man who died after he was in custody at Adelanto where he suffered brain hemorrhage while he was detained and "fell into a coma" while in detention, the ACLU said. "He was transferred to a local hospital and was formally released from ICE’s custody two weeks later. He died four weeks after his release from custody, when his family removed him from life support."
The facility in Adelanto had already faced criticism over the treatment of detainees, as well as an order from a federal judge as part of a separate lawsuit, who said ICE's communications over Arellano's death appeared to "actively conceal" information and raised "significant concerns regarding the Government’s actions and lack of candor," the ACLU wrote.
Finally, the ACLU sought records for an Ethiopian man who spent nearly three years at an ICE facility in Gadsden, Alabama. Teka Gulema became paralyzed following a bacterial infection and transferred to a hospital, but remained in ICE custody for a year, the ACLU wrote. "But when he fell into a coma in the hospital, he was released from custody, and died weeks later, "the group wrote.
ICE faced accusations of 'subpar care'
In 2016, independent health experts reviewed the circumstances surrounding the deaths of 18 immigrants held in detention by U.S. immigration authorities, and found that "subpar care" contributed to at least seven deaths. In a report in July 2016, Human Rights Watch said they reviewed a series of reports created by ICE regarding the deaths of detainees from 2012 to 2015 at facilities across the country, including four deaths at one maintained by a private company in Eloy, Arizona.
Reported by Tucson Sentinel, Human Rights Watch said after reviewing reports from ICE's own Office of Detention Oversight, the group found that officials had violated their own policies in some cases, and that in others delays in care had contributed to the deaths of immigrants.
The reviews "raise serious concerns about ICE’s ability to detect, respond appropriately to, and successfully correct serious lapses in medical care that arise in any of these facilities," HRW said.
"In 2009, the Obama administration promised major immigration detention reforms, including more centralized oversight and improved health care,” said Clara Long, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. "But these death reviews show that system-wide problems remain, including a failure to prevent or fix substandard medical care that literally kills people."