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The deaths of two men this week made it the most fatal year for immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement since 2006.
The men, a 51-year-old from Taiwan and a 72-year-old from Canada, died on Wednesday, according to ICE, which provided no additional information.
The total number of ICE deaths so far this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, is now 17, making it the highest total since 2006, when 19 immigrants died, according to ICE records.
Kuan Hui Lee, 51, of Taiwan had been detained at Krome Service Processing Center in Florida, according to information provided to congressional officials. He died at Kendall Regional Medical Center in Miami, where he had been in critical condition with a diagnosis of a massive intercranial hemorrhage.
The Canadian man had been detained at the Immigration Centers of America in Farmville, Virginia, which has the second-highest number of positive COVID-19 tests among immigrant detainees at 290. He had tested positive for COVID-19 before his death, according to a source with knowledge of the matter.
Medical experts and immigrant advocates have warned that the highly contagious disease puts everyone in detention at risk. But for the older detainees in ICE custody, the inherent problems within jails — like a lack of necessary space to accommodate proper social distancing guidelines — put them in even more danger, they say. Advocates have used these arguments as a way to push for more releases.
The number of deaths in ICE custody so far is also double that of the last fiscal year, despite a significant drop in the immigrant detainee population. Last fall, there were more than 55,000 people in ICE custody per day. As of Aug. 1, that number had dropped to about 21,500 per day.
There has also been a substantial increase in the use of force with detainees protesting housing conditions during the pandemic.
Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said there's no question COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the number of deaths in ICE custody.
"This was of course a foreseeable tragedy that ICE had ample warning about, and still ICE has allowed these preventable deaths to happen," Cho told BuzzFeed News.
Even before the pandemic, medical and mental healthcare inside ICE detention was poor, but it has only gotten worse, Cho said.
John Sandweg, a former ICE director during the Obama administration, echoed Cho's sentiments and said the rising number of deaths was tragic but unsurprising.
"Many of these deaths were avoidable, unnecessary, and a direct result of the Trump administration’s refusal to take basic steps to protect the health and safety of detainees," Sandweg told BuzzFeed News.