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  • "We have a system that is broken for detainee health care, and adding more detainees to that system can only make it worse," said Marc Stern, a correctional health expert. | Photo: Reuters

Published 9 May 2017

Data reveals needless deaths in migrant internment facilities under Obama – and rights groups are warning that fatalities can only rise under Trump.

Unauthorized immigrants are facing death and severe suffering in U.S. internment facilities thanks to severely negligent medical care, according to reports released by human rights groups Monday.

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The reports by Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, CIVIC, and Human Rights Watch, HRW, reveal that the poor attention provided to civil detainees' health under past administrations will only claim more lives as the administration of President Donald Trump seeks to dramatically step up the incarceration of migrants under expanded enforcement and removal plans.

A 104-page report, titled “Systemic Indifference: Dangerous & Substandard Medical Care in Immigration Detention,” highlights several dangers within the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement internment regime. The report mentions filthy conditions in facilities, unreasonable delays in care, unqualified staff and other “systemic failures” and “serious lapses in health care” that led to suffering by detainees

The report was based largely on reviews by medical experts of official U.S. investigations into deaths of migrants held in custody, as well as investigations into other cases that didn't involve deaths. The group drew on interviews with detainees' family members and advocates, as well as the medical records of those kenneled in publicly and privately-run ICE facilities.

“The data reveals that people in immigration detention died needlessly under the Obama administration, even with its attempts at reform,” Grace Meng, senior U.S. researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Monday. 

“The Trump administration has already announced its intent to roll back key reforms while detaining even more immigrants, which would likely mean more people will die needless and preventable deaths.”

Among the deaths cited are those of Raul Ernesto Morales Ramos, who died of organ failure with signs of widespread cancer in 2015 at GEO Group-owned Adelanto Detention Center in California. Also included is Tiombe Carlos, an Antiguan civil detainee at York County Prison in Pennsylvania who died in a 2013 suicide attempt. Carlos, a 34-year-old woman with a known mental health condition requiring quality treatment, received what one expert called “woefully inadequate” attention.

The report comes amid unrest in ICE detention facilities such as the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, where up to half of the detention compound's residents have waged a hunger demanding their release and protesting, among other issues, the negligent health care provided to detainees. 

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One detained woman's unborn child died due to the negligence of authorities, advocates believe, while another woman was hospitalized due to her receiving the wrong drugs for her health conditions. Advocates at other ICE-contracted jails have also complained of health care services being provided by prison guards rather than trained medical staff.

40,000 people, including children, are held in detention per day – totaling 400,000 per year – at a cost of US$2 billion.

"In the past 15 years, the detention population has more than doubled," the report notes. 

"In 2001, the U.S. detained approximately 209,000 people. In 2013, the most recent year for which the Department of Homeland Security has published official statistics, the US detained 440,5570."

"The recent growth of the US immigration detention system has been fueled, in part, by Congressional efforts since 2004 to fund an increasing number of beds for immigrants in detention," the report adds. "With the 2010 DHS Appropriations Act, Congress began to require the agency to maintain a 'detention bed quota,' currently set arbitrarily at 34,000 detention beds, regardless of enforcement."

Just days after he was inaugurated president in January, Trump issued an executive order aimed at holding migrants in detention until their cases are heard and speeding up deportations. The White House also requested additional funding to the tune of US$1.2 billion to increase detention capacity from 34,000 to 45,700 beds – an all-time high in the history of U.S. immigration enforcement.

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"We have a system that is broken for detainee health care, and adding more detainees to that system can only make it worse," said Marc Stern, a correctional health expert who analyzed ICE records for the report, in a statement.

“The detention system was sprawling and bloated, with oversight mechanisms that had no teeth even before President Trump was elected,” Meng said. “True reform to protect the rights of the men, women, and children in immigration detention should include an overhaul of laws that often require detention for no good reason.”

The report makes several recommendations to authorities that would mitigate the suffering and needless deaths of migrant detainees, including legislative measures on the national, state and local levels that would boost oversight and transparency drastically while halting mandatory detention and inhumane practices such as the isolation of people with psychosocial disabilities.

“The Trump administration is obligated to ensure that all people in detention are treated humanely and with dignity,” the report says, adding that the treatment should include the “provision of appropriate medical care (and) sufficient funding to meet these obligations.”

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