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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hui v. Castañeda that immigrants who are detained by immigration authorities are barred from bringing actions to challenge egregious medical mistreatment while they are in custody.

The Supreme Court generally permits actions challenging unconstitutional government acts, including “deliberate indifference” to medical needs, pursuant to the case of Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U. S. 388, 397 (1971). Today, however, the Supreme Court held that a federal statute bars such actions in cases involving medical mistreatment by employees of the Public Health Service.

“When the U.S. government detains someone, it has a responsibility to provide that individual with access to proper medical care. What happened to Francisco Castañeda was an outrage,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center. “The Supreme Court’s decision may be a sound technical legal decision, but Mr. Castañeda’s death is a tragedy, and highlights the need for action by Congress and the Obama Administration to ensure that detained immigrants have access to medical care.”

In 2005, when he was detained by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Francisco Castañeda developed a cancerous growth. Despite a history of cancer in his family and recommendations from various doctors, the DHS Division of Immigration Health Services—the agency which oversees medical treatment for immigrant detainees—refused to authorize a biopsy. Mr. Castañeda eventually was released from immigration custody and went to a local hospital, where he was diagnosed with penile cancer. Within days, he underwent an amputation of the cancerous organ and began chemotherapy. That treatment was unsuccessful, and he died in 2008 at age 36.

NIJC frequently intervenes in cases of medical neglect among the more than 1,300 immigrant detainees the organization represents every year. NIJC also receives complaints from detainees across the country regarding their medical treatment. At least 110 immigrants have died in DHS custody since 2003. Investigations by the media have revealed that many of the deaths resulted from medical neglect. In its amicus brief in Mr. Castañeda’s case, NIJC drew the Supreme Court’s attention to recent published findings and newspaper reports that painted a picture of the due process and human rights violations which immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers experience in the U.S. immigration detention system, including widespread lack of access to counsel and adequate health care.


Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center is a Chicago-based nongovernmental organization dedicated to ensuring human rights protections and access to justice for all immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers through a unique combination of direct services, policy reform, impact litigation and public education. For more information visit