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The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments today in a case that will determine whether immigrants who suffer egregious medical mistreatment while in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can seek punitive damages.

Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) submitted an amicus brief in Hui et al. v. Castañeda arguing that immigrant detainees who experience serious medical neglect or mistreatment should be allowed to file a Bivens action seeking damages in addition to those already available under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

“Immigrants who experience health problems while in ICE custody are completely dependent on the health care staff at the detention facilities,” said Claudia Valenzuela, associate director of litigation, Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC). “Those medical personnel have a moral and, we believe, a legal obligation to treat detained immigrants humanely and ensure that they receive the medical care they need. Allowing detainees who suffer severe medical neglect and malpractice to seek damages under Bivens would be a significant deterrent to medical mistreatment or neglect of immigrant detainees.”

In Hui et al. v. Castañeda, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) is appealing a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which found that PHS officials may be sued for violating an individual’s constitutional rights. Francisco Castañeda died of penile cancer in February 2008 after PHS medical officers failed to provide treatment in immigration detention.

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 reporting that detention center medical staff ignore requests to see doctors or deny access to prescription medicine. More than 105 immigrants have died in ICE custody since 2003. Investigations by the media and human rights organizations have revealed that many of the deaths resulted from medical neglect on the part of detention center staff.

In its amicus brief, NIJC includes an overview of findings published in recent years in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and in a 2007 report from the Bellevue/New York University Program for Survivors of Torture and Physicians for Human Rights. The brief paints a picture of the due process and human rights violations that immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers experience in the U.S. immigration detention system, including widespread lack of access to counsel and adequate medical 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