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Immigrant Deaths Covered Up

Monday, January 11, marks eight years since the Bush administration transferred the first prisoners to the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. Ever since, human rights groups have pushed for the closure of Guantánamo and they’re pushing harder now for the Obama administration to implement its plans to transfer or release detainees and shut the place.

Close Guantánamo and we’ll restore the rule of law and American standing in the world, some human rights advocates say. Unfortunately, it won’t be that easy. Prolonged detention  in criminal conditions is not only happening in Gitmo. It’s happening in our immigration system.

In a series of investigations, New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein has been digging for facts since she broke a story back in April about a Pakistani man who died in immigration detention and then vanished from DHS’s records.

There have been, it turns out, at least 107 deaths in detention since the creation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency in late 2003.  And now new FOIA documents reveal widespread wrongdoing and extensive cover-ups.


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Even 107 deaths is an underestimate. According to the story, ICE  tries to ship dying detainees home to lower fatality rates –  and escape scrutiny — and medical bills. They called it humanitarian release. Talk about ICE and cold.

In at least one case authorities left a man in a coma untreated in his cell for over 13 hours while they tried to persuade his cousins to take responsibility for his care.  When Boubacar Bah, 52, died, the local ICE field director recommended flying his body to Guinea to prevent his widow from showing up for a funeral and attracting news coverage.

The  high rate of death hidden by a successful culture of secrecy can in large part be blamed on “what some of the agency’s own employees say is a central flaw,” namely allowing ICE to regulate and investigate itself.  That’s quite some flaw. Some Bush administration era officials who played a role in the coverups remain in top posts under Obama. Will Bernstein’s reporting stir Congress to act? Only if there’s pressure.

Bernstein’s reporting is exactly the kind of in depth work newspaper owners claim is endangered in the new economy. Now let’s see if it’s picked up. Immigration detention centers exist all over the country. Which local reporters are going to dig into this where they are? Let’s hope it doesn’t take eight years.

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Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders is a best-selling author and broadcaster who hosts the The Laura Flanders Show, where she interviews forward thinking people about the key questions of our time.  The LF Show airs weekly on KCET/LinkTV, FreeSpeech TV, and in English & Spanish in teleSUR. Flanders is also a contributing writer to The Nation and Yes! Magazine (“Commonomics”) and a regular guest on MSNBC. She is the author of six books, including The New York Times best-seller, BUSHWOMEN: Tales of a Cynical Species (Verso, 2004) and Blue GRIT: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians (Penguin Press, 2007). The Laura Flanders Show first aired on Air America Radio 2004-2008. You can find all her archives and more at or via Twitter @GRITlaura

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