WASHINGTON -- An internal investigation by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general into the deaths of immigrants detained by the government has recommended better access to medical care, stronger oversight and general improvements in detention standards. But investigators in the limited probe commended officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that oversees immigrant detentions, for adhering to standards they are supposed to follow after detainees have died.
The department said the report, released this week, validated its approach to detainee care, but civil rights groups and immigrant rights advocates criticized the investigation, which focused on only two deaths out of the 74 that have occurred since 2004.
The critics said that although the report's recommendations mirrored their concerns about detainee care, the narrow scope of the inquiry reinforced how little information Homeland Security provides about detainees and the overall lack of accountability for their care.
The deaths of legal and illegal immigrants in detention have drawn widespread attention in the last year, resulting in lawsuits, investigative reports, the attention of a special United Nations investigator and two bills in Congress.
No one accountable
With the Bush administration's aggressive enforcement policies sending the number of jailed immigrants spiraling upward, the issue will remain a priority for Congress, Homeland Security and immigrant rights advocates, who point out that no government body is now responsible for accounting for detainee deaths.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have dismissed much of the criticism, but they also have made changes to detention standards. On Wednesday, they said the report validated their stance.
"ICE is pleased that the report corroborates that the deaths investigated were not the fault of ICE, nor could they have been prevented," said agency spokeswoman Kelly Nantel. The report also praised the agency for its "timely compliance with steps in ICE's detainee death standards," such as notifying family members and the consulate of the deceased's home country.
Nantel said ICE had implemented national detention standards and improved oversight by launching independent inspections at the 40 largest detention facilities. Immigrants are housed in centers run by ICE or private companies and in state and local jails that have agreed to take them.
Gouri Bhat, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said Homeland Security's inspector general "investigated only two deaths, and even then found serious flaws in the medical care these detainees received."
Despite requests, the inspector general did not explain why only two cases were examined or why those two were chosen. In both cases, the detainees died because of preexisting medical conditions.
Bhat noted that in one of the cases, a detainee in Minnesota was not taken promptly to a hospital after suffering a head injury and did not receive a physical exam within 14 days of arriving at the detention center, as required.
"These are serious medical deficiencies, and we are left to wonder about the dozens of unexamined deaths," Bhat said. She noted that even though the head of ICE, Julie Myers, has directed that all deaths of detainees be reported to state and federal authorities, the agency is still not legally required to do so and the standards are "legally unenforceable."
Jail population soared
The administration began monitoring the U.S. border and work sites more aggressively in 2007, after Congress tried and failed to rework immigration law. The enforcement effort, which includes mandatory jail time for illegal immigrants caught in certain border areas, led to an explosion in the number of detainees.
In December, the average daily detainee population was 28,702, a 61% increase over January 2006. ICE officials note that the 74 people who have died in detention since 2004 were among 1.5 million who passed through ICE custody in that period.
As the detainee population has grown, the ACLU has found deficient medical care to be the No. 1 complaint.
The organization has brought a lawsuit charging that flawed or denied care has led to excruciating suffering and the deaths of numerous detainees at an ICE center in San Diego, one of more than 300 detention facilities across the United States.
In a report released June 30, the U.N. documented "credible claims" of denied, inadequate or incorrect care and delays in treatment in ICE facilities. It found ICE was "insulated" from oversight and was not transparent about detainee deaths.
Two bills in Congress would change that. One, by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), would require Homeland Security to establish procedures for timely delivery of healthcare, report all deaths to the department's inspector general and to Congress, and ensure that professionals make treatment decisions.
Currently, the medical decisions of on-site staff can be overruled by off-site officials without further review.
The report can be found here.
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