In a front-page story last Sunday, the New York Times reported that internal government documents show how top government officials, many of whom remain in place in the Obama administration, carried out an intentional campaign of obfuscation to try and hide the brutal mistreatment of immigration detainees that has contributed to 107 in-custody deaths since late 2003. The documents were obtained by both the paper and the ACLU from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The ACLU filed a FOIA lawsuit in 2008 demanding access to any and all documents and information in the government’s possession related to the deaths of detainees at immigration detention centers — the patchwork system of privately run jails, federal prisons and county facilities the government uses to hold undocumented immigrants while it tries to deport them.
Sunday’s Times story was just the latest in a series authored by reporter Nina Bernstein, who has utilized the thousands of pages of documents the ACLU’s litigation has successfully wrested from the grips of government agencies to shine a much-needed spotlight on the callousness with which government officials have treated the deaths of immigrant detainees in their custody and which for too long was shrouded in secrecy.
Last January, the Times reported the death of Guido R. Newbrough, 48, a construction worker born in Germany but who lived in the United States for the last 42 years of his life while sporting a "Raised American" tattoo on his shoulder. Newbrough died Nov. 27, 2008, in a Virginia hospital after being detained for 11 months at the Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville, Va. According to the Times, he died of endocarditis, caused by a virulent staph infection that is typically cured by antibiotics. But as Bernstein writes, his infection went untreated “despite his mounting pleas for medical care in the 10 days before his death.”
This past April, Bernstein authored a compelling narrative about Ahmad Tanveer, a Pakistani New Yorker whose 2005 death was buried by the government and kept out of public view until it was unearthed through some of the documents obtained by the ACLU.
And in August, Bernstein reported on the death of Felix Franklin Rodriguez-Torres, 36, an Ecuadorian construction worker whose death at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona from a fast-growing but treatable form of testicular cancer that went undiagnosed by government officials was also hidden from public view until exposed by the ACLU.
The ACLU’s FOIA litigation, combined with the Times’ reporting, contributed to a number of major concessions by the Obama administration in recent months. This past August, administration officials announced plans to overhaul the immigration detention system and create “a truly civil detention system,” including the ending of family detention at the T. Don Hutto Family Detention Center in Texas which had been the focus of an ACLU lawsuit. The Obama administration was also forced in August to reveal 11 additional deaths in immigration detention that the government had not previously made public.
The ACLU’s litigation and the resulting news coverage in the New York Times and elsewhere underscore the urgent need for overhaul and reform. Among other things, the immigration detention system needs to be infused with far greater levels of independent oversight and transparency than which currently exits. Congress should pass immigration detention reform as part of any comprehensive immigration reform legislation. And our nation as a whole needs to divorce itself from its reliance on detention in the first place. The vast majority of the people the government has forced into detention didn’t ever warrant being detained, but they nonetheless have been victimized by an unyielding commitment to detention and deportation without the kind of individualized determinations that are the essence of due process.
The time for the kind of sweeping, systemic reform that is so desperately called for is now.