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Immigration Detention: A Death Sentence for Far Too Many

Will Matthews,
ACLU of Northern California
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October 24, 2011

The Department of Homeland Security assumes that mass detention is the key to immigration enforcement. But in fact, our detention system locks up thousands of immigrants unnecessarily every year, exposing detainees to brutal and inhumane conditions of confinement at massive costs to American taxpayers. Throughout the next two weeks, check back daily for posts about the costs of immigration detention, both human and fiscal, and what needs to be done to ensure fair and humane policy.

Ahmad Tanveer, a Pakistani New Yorker held in immigration detention at the Monmouth County Correctional Institute in Freehold, N.J., died in anonymity in 2005 despite telling officials of severe chest pain and pleading for hours for medical assistance — pleas that were not responded to until it was too late.

Tanveer’s death was buried and kept out of public view until, four years later, New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein, with the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union and documents we obtained from the government through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation, told his story for the very first time. Even as the Times reported thatstory, government officials had trouble confirming that Tanveer had ever existed, much less had been locked up in immigration detention and had died there.

And as it turned out, Tanveer’s story was not unique.

Nine months later, the Times reported how internal government documents obtained through the ACLU’s FOIA litigation and a separate FOIA request filed by the newspaper showed how top government officials, many held over by the Obama administration, intentionally tried to hide the brutal mistreatment of immigration detainees. This mistreatment contributed to the more than 100 in-custody deaths since late 2003. The documents were obtained from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General. 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.

The government documents obtained by the ACLU exposed a number of in-custody detainee deaths that the government had not previously made public — deaths the ACLU worked with the Times to bring to light. The deaths underscore the secrecy and lack of any kind of independent accountability that continue to plague the nation’s immigration detention system today, and which leaves in place a system that is ripe for continued abuse and mistreatment of immigration detainees, one of the most vulnerable populations in the country.

In January 2009, for example, 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 wrote, his infection went untreated “despite his mounting pleas for medical care in the 10 days before his death.”

And the following 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 2009. Administration officials announced plans to overhaul the immigration detention system and create “a truly civil detention system,” including the end 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.

But as last week’s investigation by Frontline makes clear — an investigation that also was aided by ACLU FOIA documents — there is nothing “civil” about the abuses that continue to go on behind the closed doors of immigration detention facilities across the country.

The immigration detention system remains in desperate need of far greater levels of independent oversight and transparency than that 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.

Being needlessly detained should never turn into a death sentence.

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