Half the people who died in ICE custody in recent years could potentially have been saved if they had just gotten adequate medical care, according to a new report from immigration advocacy groups.
The report is the work of Detention Watch Network, Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, and National Immigrant Justice Center. It highlights the struggles Immigration and Customs Enforcement faces in providing health care for the tens of thousands of people in its custody every day. It comes as the family separation crisis puts more attention than ever on conditions in immigrant detention, where thousands of parents wait and hope to be reunited with their children.
One case was of Jose Manuel Azurdia Hernandez, a 54-year-old who died in a California detention center run by the private prison company GEO Group. On the morning of Dec. 19, 2015, a person detained with Azurdia told an officer at the detention center that Azurdia was sick and needed medical care. The officer heard Azurdia vomiting and told a nurse at the facility about it. But the nurse didn’t go to help the sick man. According to the officer, she said “she did not want to see Azurdia because she did not want to get sick.” The delay cost Azurdia precious time, and it took hours for him to get to the hospital.
“By that point, Mr. Azurdia’s heart was too damaged to benefit from procedures aimed at increasing the capacity of his heart,” the report found.
He had had a heart attack, and died on Dec. 23.
“Time is absolutely critical,” said Dr. Palav Babaria, chief administrative officer of Ambulatory Services at Alameda Health System in Oakland, California. “If they could have stented him [or inserted a device to increase blood flow through his heart] when he had symptoms, he could have been saved.”
The report went on to analyze more than a dozen deaths in detention from 2015 to 2017. It found that in eight out of 15 cases analyzed from those three years, substandard medical care contributed to the detainees’ deaths.
In one case, ICE officers neglected to take a Russian asylum seeker with a heart condition named Igor Zyazin to the hospital. Another detainee who was held at the same facility as Zyazin, Gerardo Cruz-Sanchez, vomited everything he ate for a week. According to a lawsuit cited in the report, Cruz-Sanchez’s cellmates begged officers to help him, but they declined, “saying that they only take detainees to the hospital when they are dying.” Cruz-Sanchez later died.
The report details example after example of alleged negligence on the part of ICE and private prison company officials, including a Guatemalan man who had two seizures and was never hospitalized, and a DACA recipient who jumped off a building in an attempt to kill himself but, subsequently, was never put on suicide watch.
In a statement, ICE spokesperson Matthew Bourke said the agency takes very seriously its responsibility to provide health care to detainees, and he detailed the internal reports that officials write about each death.
“ICE is committed to ensuring that everyone in our custody receives timely access to medical services and treatment,” Bourke said. “Comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment detainees arrive and throughout the entirety of their stay. All ICE detainees receive medical, dental, and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility, a full health assessment within 14 days of entering ICE custody or arrival at a facility, and access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care.”
In fiscal year 2017, 12 people died in ICE custody, according to the report––more deaths than in any year since 2009.
The report concluded that unreasonable delays in providing medical help have resulted in numerous preventable deaths in ICE custody in recent years. It also found that nurses provided substandard care, misdiagnosing illnesses and ignoring dangerous symptoms.
And staff at numerous detention centers, according to the report, failed to handle emergencies properly.
“Flawed emergency response is also a recurring theme in the cases,” the report reads. “Across several different detention centers, facility and medical staff lacked appropriate medical equipment, failed to properly monitor for and respond to emergencies, or inappropriately decided to send desperately ill patients by van to the hospital instead of by ambulance.”
Over the course of years, going back to 2010, the report’s authors have gotten independent analyses of the death reports of 33 people. Those analyses have found that only three of the people who died received adequate medical care.
Deaths in ICE custody have continued this year. On May 16, Honduran native Ronal Cruz died of bacterial meningitis in ICE custody. His family is preparing to sue ICE for wrongful death, according to court filings reviewed by The Daily Beast. And on May 25, Roxana Hernandez, a transgender Honduran woman, died in ICE custody.
Matthew Kolken, an immigration attorney based in Buffalo, New York, said the report’s findings line up with his clients’ experiences.
“There’s a high degree of neglect,” he told The Daily Beast. “My clients have had their medications confiscated at the time of their being taken into custody, and in one instance I know that my client was prescribed the wrong medication and it was almost fatal to him.”
“This has been going on for a decade,” he added. “I just don’t think that they have sufficient staffing on site to be able to deal with basic medical needs.”
Bob Libal, who heads the anti-detention group Grassroots Leadership, said that just being detained can harm people’s health.
“Detention is traumatizing, particularly for people who have been traumatized,” he said. “So there are additional ailments that people get from being in detention. So it’s both about the treatment and about detention itself being physically and mentally distressing.”