Detainee's Death Sparks Concerns About Oversight
NEW YORK - Following revelations about the latest
death of a detainee in the custody of U.S. immigration officials,
lawyers and human rights groups are urging Congress to adopt new
legislation to ensure adequate medical care for all those held by the
U.S. immigration enforcement agency.
"A civilized society is in large part defined by the justice and
humanity of its law enforcement," said Charles Kuck of the American
Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). "Our immigration law
enforcement has ceased to be either just or humane."
Like many others, Kuck's organization raised serious concerns about
the nature of the circumstances in which an immigrant died in a Rhode
Island prison about two weeks ago. Hiu Lui Ng, 34, left behind a wife
who is a U.S. citizen and two American-born sons.
Ng, who came to New York from Hong Kong in 1992, had overstayed a
visa many years ago. Last summer he was arrested in New York when he
appeared before an immigration court for his final interview for
permanent residence status. In the intervening years he had attended
college, gotten married, fathered two children, and become a computer
engineer in New York City.
In a letter to federal and state prosecutors, Ng's lawyers have
demanded a criminal investigation into the cause of his death. They
contend that authorities with the U.S. Immigration and Customs
Enforcement (ICE) agency not only physically mistreated the sick man,
but also refused his pleas for medical evaluation.
Ng first complained of severe back pain in April and had grown too
weak to stand by mid-July. Officials reportedly accused him of faking,
denied him a wheelchair or an independent medical examination.
Only after a court order was issued in late July was Ng taken to a
hospital, on Aug. 1, where he was found to have terminal cancer and a
fractured spine. He died five days later.
"If the facts are as reported," AILA's Kuck went on to say, "then
ICE has gone over the line of all decency. We cannot allow [it] to
simply circle the wagons and dismiss its actions with a sentence or two
of regret. Responsibility must be taken and policies changed."
No government body is currently charged with accounting for deaths
in ICE detention, which is comprised of a patchwork of county jails,
private prisons, and federal facilities. Independent research, however,
shows that in the past four years at least 71 immigrants died in
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), more than
30,000 men, women, and children are detained by ICE each year. They
include asylum seekers, long-time green card holders with minor
immigration violations, and families with small children.
In response to growing calls from rights groups, Rep. Zoe Lofgren
introduced the Detainees Basic Medical Care Act, which requires
adequate medical care for immigrant detainees and the collection of
data on their deaths. The bill is still pending in Congress.
The ACLU and other groups have welcomed the proposal, but seem
unhappy with the slow speed of the legislative process. "This
legislation is long overdue," said the ACLU's Caroline Fredrickson,
describing the official response to the problem as "disgraceful."
Lofgren introduced the bill several days after the government
admitted its responsibility for the death of another immigrant,
Castaneda, who came to the United States a few years ago, dreaming that
he would lead a rich life, landed in a prison on charges of illegal
entrance to the "land of the free."
He was in jail when he discovered painful lesions on his penis,
which went untreated. He reportedly bled through his underwear for
nearly one year, before dying from cancer.
According to the ACLU, immigration officials and its division
responsible for assisting prisoners with health services "ignored"
medical advice and "refused" to provide a biopsy to Castaneda. Like Ng,
Castaneda received some treatment during his last days, but it came too
In supporting Lofgren's legislative proposal, Megan McLemore, a
researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), which tracks rights violations
worldwide, said inconsistent and inadequate standards of care are
leading to unnecessary deaths and suffering.
Tom Jawetz, a lawyer for the ACLU, made a similar observation.
"The welfare of immigration detainees is often ignored because,
unlike other prisoners, [they] do not have the right to free counsel,"
he said. "[They] face language barriers and fear deportation."
Studies conducted by the bipartisan Commission on International
Religious Freedom and New York University's Bellevue Program and
Physicians for Human Rights demonstrate that immigration detainees are
often held in remote areas, with no access to lawyers.
Researchers argue there is no need for such practices because there
are safer and more cost effective alternatives to detention. Their
findings show that detention itself poses a serious threat to the
psychological health of the detainees.
Jawetz said he hoped the new legislation would "prevent anyone else from suffering and dying unnecessarily."
Meanwhile, Kuck and his colleagues are calling for an "immediate and
independent" investigation into the circumstances surrounding Ng's
death. "Anyone found responsible either through intent or negligence
must be held accountable," Kuck said in a statement.