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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Under intense pressure from civil society and Congress in light of an autopsy report which suggested Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez, a transgender woman, was beaten before she died in custody in May, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has published a new web page with notifications of six deaths that occurred in fiscal year 2018. Despite the page’s claim that the brief reports bring ICE into compliance with congressional reporting requirements regarding in-custody deaths, the summaries fall far short of providing any meaningful review of what led to the deaths of the men and women who lost their lives in the U.S. immigration prison system.

Human Rights Watch, the National Immigrant Justice Center, Detention Watch Network and the American Civil Liberties Union have released three reports since 2016 documenting the deaths of dozens of individuals in ICE custody, most recently in June of this year.  The reports, based on independent medical expert analysis of ICE Detainee Death Reviews obtained through the Freedom of Information Act or published by ICE on its FOIA Library website, detail evidence of medical neglect and subpar and dangerous practices by ICE and its private contractors. Those who died commonly faced  unreasonable delays in obtaining urgently needed medical care, poor practitioner and nursing care, and botched emergency response.

In early 2018, Congress required that ICE publicly release all reporting on each in-custody death within 90 days of the death. The agency has refused to comply with the requirement, however, and since the release of the third non-governmental report on in-custody deaths in June, ICE has refused to publicly post any additional Detainee Death Reviews to its FOIA Library.

“ICE’s newly posted ‘reports’ lack most of the information the agency has made available in its FOIA Library regarding previous deaths, and is vastly insufficient to constitute meaningful compliance with congressional requirements,” said NIJC Director of Policy Heidi Altman. “They are incomplete in number, entirely lacking in analysis, and devoid of findings or recommendations for remediation. In short, they evince a disrespect for the people whose lives were lost and a cynical effort by ICE to circumvent basic norms of good governance.”

“These are not detainee death reviews. They are an institutional white-washing meant to keep the spigot of congressional funds flowing for a multi-billion dollar death machine,” said R. Andrew Free, an immigration and civil rights lawyer who represents the families of Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez, Ronal Francisco, Gourgen Mirimanian, and Efrain de la Rosa. “For example, it is painfully obvious from ICE’s summary of Mr. Francisco’s pre-death detention that the agency either hasn’t looked at the medical records examined during the local autopsy or has decided to deliberately exclude them from its report. This is shameful.”

“The six new documents released by ICE constitute mere notifications of a death,” said Dr. Marc Stern, an expert in correctional health, assistant affiliate professor of Public Health at the University of Washington, former health services director for Washington State’s Department of Corrections, and former subject matter expert for investigations conducted by the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. “They serve a role in assuring that interested parties are aware that a death has occurred, providing basic information, such as ‘who, what, where, when.’ However, these newly released ‘Detainee Death Reports’ in no way provide the required analysis of a death, which is intended to answer the more important question: ‘Why?’ It is only armed with an answer to this latter question that ICE will be able to correct any underlying system problems which may have led to the death, or might lead to another death in the future.”

“Too many people suffer needlessly from ICE’s failure comply with basic standards of care. ICE must be fully transparent about in-custody deaths and held accountable when they fail to provide necessary medical care to people detained in its facilities,” said Victoria Lopez, senior staff attorney at the ACLU.

Problems with the newly published reports include:

  • Three deaths which occurred in ICE custody in fiscal year 2018 are yet to be included on the site, despite having occurred more than 90 days ago.
  • The reviews are only two-to-three pages long, and consist only of bulleted summaries of incidents leading up to each death. The reviews do not include any analysis or assessment of the care provided, do not compare the care provided to the governing standards in place at the relevant facility, do not discuss areas of concern, and do not in any case provide recommendations for remediated practices. Most previously released ICE Detainee Death Reviews are between 20 and  40 pages in length.
  • The focus of the so-called reports has more to do with the Trump administration's ongoing vilification of immigrants, even in death. The majority of the first page of each report consists of a detailed discussion of each individual’s immigration and criminal history, facts that are completely irrelevant to the individual’s death and in no way contribute to a meaningful assessment of the medical care they were provided.

When people lose their lives in immigration detention, ICE must be held accountable to engage in meaningful reviews of their deaths and make those reviews immediately available to the public. Perhaps most importantly, with consistent and accelerating patterns of ICE’s disregard for human life and safety, and refusal to comply with congressional reporting requirements, members of Congress must do their job and hold ICE accountable by cutting funding for its inhumane prison system.