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New report finds majority of immigrant deaths in ICE detention could have been prevented

ICE agent
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
An ICE agent.

In a new report out this week, a trio of rights groups allege the vast majority of immigrants who died while in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody could have been saved with better medical and mental health care.

The report comes from the ACLU, American Oversight and the Physicians for Human Rights. It alleges 95% of the 52 in-custody deaths that occurred in ICE facilities between 2017 and 2021 could have been prevented with changes to things like medical staffing, training and response to emergency situations.

Dr. Chanelle Diaz, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, medical experts who reviewed the cases.

“As a primary care physician, who also sees patients in the hospital, it was really clear to me that in several of the cases that I reviewed there were so many red flags that were missed that there were opportunities to intervene,” she said. “To me, there were several deaths that stood out as egregious medical errors and medical neglect.”

Diaz analyzed more than a dozen of the deaths cited in the report, including Emigdio Abel Reyes Clemente’s. The 54-year-old Mexican national died of undiagnosed bacterial pneumonia while detained in Arizona’s Florence Service Processing Center in April 2019.

According to the report, facility staff wrongly diagnosed Reyes with the flu and failed to transfer him to the hospital — even after his oxygen levels and other vital signs plummeted. He died in a medical isolation cell in the facility two days later.

Diaz says Reyes had been detained in Florence since February of that year and was also diabetic, but staff members had stopped checking his blood glucose levels a week before his death. She says his case and others across the country show a systemic failure in ICE detention to respond to emergencies and monitor people with pre-existing conditions.

“It’s really clear that the standards that are being applied in detention settings are not standards that we would apply in any other healthcare settings,” she said. “[Reyes] had dangerously low oxygen levels that anyone with basic health training should have been able to recognize as emergency values, urgent values.”

His case is one of two Arizona cases highlighted in the report. The other was that of Simratpal Singh, a 20-year-old Indian man who died by suicide in the La Paz County Adult Detention Facility in May, 2019. The report says Singh spoke only two words of English, according to his medical reports, but was not provided with an interpreter. He was found hanging in his cell shortly after requesting a pair of socks from facility staff. The report says he was not assessed for suicidal ideation upon entering the facility, despite medical records showing past suicide attempts.

ICE did not respond to questions about the report or the deaths or Reyes or Singh.

Seventy people have died in ICE custody since 2017, according to the report. Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project, says that includes a record number of deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. She says cases and deaths rose sharply in detention, despite mitigation efforts outlined by ICE.

“We saw even the most basic precautions that ICE had instructed facilities to take on paper were not being followed, leading to the explosion of COVID-19 on facilities nationwide,” she said.

Cho says in some cases, medical experts also found facility staff failed to respond to emergency situations, or carry out critical tests for things like heart attacks.

“These are all things that could, if outside the walls of detention, could very well have prevented these deaths,” she said. “But what we’re seeing is that in immigration detention, medical care is simply not being provided, in a way that is leaving people to die.”

She says the report is especially important now — as the federal budget for ICE operations grows and deaths in detention continue.

Eight people have died in ICE facilities since December, according to agency data. It’s twice the number of deaths in all of 2023.

Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.
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