A soon-to-be-published report from Congress, obtained exclusively by BuzzFeed News, found that people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are often given deficient medical care and that detention centers use segregation as a threat against immigrants.
The report, launched by the House Homeland Security Committee in 2019, is based on tours of eight ICE detention centers, interviews, and facility inspection reports. The committee found that ICE and its contractors frequently demonstrated an indifference to the mental and physical care of immigrants in their custody. The committee is set to release the report on Monday.
"The committee encountered several staff working at detention facilities that diminished the seriousness of suicide attempts as well as evidence of detainee medical issues going untreated," the report said.
Immigrants interviewed for the report said that ICE guards frequently used segregation to threaten or retaliate against them for actions like submitting too many medical requests or participating in a hunger strike.
In a statement, ICE said it appreciates the efforts of the committee and intends to closely review the report.
“ICE welcomes any recommendations that help improve agency processes and ensure that civil detention operations provide a safe and secure environment for detainees,” the immigration enforcement agency said in a statement. “The health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities.”
In 2019, there were at least three inspections at the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, New Mexico, that found serious medical issues, including hundreds of unanswered sick calls by immigrants. There was also a lack of necessary care and medication for chronically ill detainees, the report said.
Then-ICE Assistant Director for Custody Management Tae Johnson told the committee that no immediate action was taken because headquarters was not made aware of the "serious nature of the problems" until December 2019, when officials started making plans to transfer immigrants to other facilities.
The report said Johnson's statements were false because not only did ICE headquarters know about the conditions, but according to the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL), Johnson was made aware of the conditions in September 2019.
"Nonetheless, ICE waited another four months before even contemplating whether to remove detainees from a facility they were told was unsafe," the report said. "Such a delay put the health and safety of hundreds of migrants at risk."
In March, BuzzFeed News reported on a DHS memo that revealed how immigrants at Cibola County Correctional Center sometimes waited up to 17 days for urgently needed medical care. They were exposed to poor sanitation and quarantine practices during a chickenpox and mumps outbreak and didn’t get medications as directed by a doctor for illnesses such as diabetes, epilepsy, and tuberculosis.
ICE has come under fire in recent years for issues related to medical care provided within its detention centers. Last December, BuzzFeed News revealed a whistleblower’s complaint alleging that care at several facilities overseen by ICE was so dire, it resulted in two preventable surgeries, including an 8-year-old boy who had to have part of his forehead removed, and contributed to four deaths. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform has since launched an investigation.
ICE’s sprawling detention system relies on a variety of methods to provide medical care. In some facilities, the agency provides it directly; in others, it has a few ICE employees assist private or public contractors; and in many, it oversees care provided by a contractor.
ICE officials have long said that they are dedicated to providing timely and comprehensive medical care to immigrants in their custody, noting that they have access to a daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care.
The agency has also been criticized for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic in detention facilities.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, detainees and immigrant advocates have highlighted the health threats posed by the highly contagious disease for those in ICE custody. The agency has attempted to assure congressional officials and the public that it has carefully examined the issue and has even released certain “vulnerable" detainees. However, advocates said there are inherent problems within the detention facilities to safeguard from potentially deadly outbreaks, like the lack of necessary space to accommodate proper social distancing guidelines.
In the 2020 fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30, 19 immigrants have died in ICE custody. This is the highest number of ICE deaths in a fiscal year since 2006 when the same number of immigrants died, according to ICE records.
Bennie Thompson, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement ICE must establish better processes of identifying and correcting deficiencies at its detention centers.
"ICE needs to put the health of its migrants in its care first by enforcing its own standards of care and only sending taxpayer money to facilities that meet these standards," Thompson said. "The COVID-19 pandemic, and its quick spread within ICE facilities, has further highlighted how failures to meet these standards of care are a matter of life and death for migrants and employees."
One immigrant, with a life-threatening peanut allergy who was detained at the River Correctional Center in Ferriday, Louisiana, went into anaphylactic shock four times over the course of four months before medical staff ordered a blood test to determine the extent of his allergy, the report said.
Immigrants said their medical complaints were frequently dismissed by ICE staff and that regardless of the problem, they were given common pain relievers unless the symptoms were urgent. This is a common complaint that immigrants in numerous ICE detention facilities have also made to BuzzFeed News.
People detained at the LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena, Louisiana, described a system that depended on non–medically trained people to make healthcare decisions.
In some cases, if an immigrant was experiencing pain, the guard in the housing unit might tell them to wait until the morning to see a doctor, the report said. And even if they managed to see a health professional, the medical personnel would make fun of their complaints, immigrants at LaSalle told the committee.
Immigrants at Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, California, reported being told to prioritize "one problem at a time" and not raise multiple concerns when seeing a healthcare professional. At the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in California, immigrants said they sometimes had to wait months to receive medical care.
A common complaint from immigrants interviewed for this report was that segregation was frequently used as a form of threat or retaliation by ICE guards.
People detained at the River Correctional Center in Ferriday, Louisiana, said guards threatened to place detainees in segregation for actions the staff considered disruptive, like submitting too many medical requests. One immigrant at the facility said he was placed in segregation for several days for going on a hunger strike that lasted less than a week.
At ICE's Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, New Mexico, immigrants told the committee that guards often used the threat of segregation to get them to comply with orders. Immigrants at the ICE jail also said they were placed in segregation for participating in a hunger strike.
Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral officials said that "such individuals" had been put in segregation for 28 days, but added that the discipline was for other reasons, the report said.
The House Homeland Security Committee report also noted that ICE's own oversight tools often leave deficiencies at its facilities unidentified and uncorrected.