A 43-year-old Cuban asylum-seeker who had gone on a hunger strike after becoming frustrated with his immigration case died of an apparent suicide after months in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, according to an internal government report obtained by BuzzFeed News.
Roylan Hernandez-Diaz's death was confirmed by ICE officials in a news release Wednesday that provided limited details on the circumstances, including that he had entered ICE custody in May after being apprehended at the El Paso Port of Entry. He is the second person to die in ICE custody in the current fiscal year, which began in October, and comes after eight inmates died last year.
Hernandez-Diaz had been detained at the Richwood Correctional Center in Louisiana, a private prison operated by the firm LaSalle Corrections, while his case was pending before the immigration court, officials said. His death was first reported by Telemundo.
An internal ICE detainee death notification obtained by BuzzFeed News provided additional details on his case. Hernandez-Diaz had first entered ICE custody in May and made a claim of fear of being returned to his homeland of Cuba. By June, US Citizenship and Immigration Services officials determined that he had passed a “credible fear” screening, according to the internal notification.
In the screenings, immigrants must prove there is a significant possibility that they have a valid fear of persecution or torture in their home country. It’s the first step in a long process to gain protections in the US, one that has come under scrutiny from Trump administration officials.
As of August, ICE was detaining nearly 9,000 immigrants who had passed the test, a mark that had been described as “shocking” by some former agency officials. Hernandez-Diaz requested in August that he be paroled — or released into the US — while he awaited his hearing in immigration court. He was denied, according to the internal report.
Hernandez-Diaz's wife, Yarelis Gutierrez, 43, said she last spoke to him on Oct. 9 after an immigration court hearing. She described her husband as angry and disappointed after being asked to provide more evidence about his persecution in Cuba because it was difficult to obtain, especially from within ICE detention.
"He told me he was going to participate in a hunger strike because of the abuse he endured in detention," Gutierrez told BuzzFeed News. "He never said he was going to hurt or kill himself. This is all news to me and I don't believe it's true."
Gutierrez said her husband had been persecuted by the Cuban government for speaking out against its leaders and trying unsuccessfully to leave the country three times — twice in 1994 and once in 2001.
"They imprisoned him for nine years the last time," Gutierrez said.
In September, Hernandez-Diaz again sought to be released from US detention. On Oct. 8, the ICE office in New Orleans denied his release once more, the report stated. A day later, his case in immigration court was reset to January. Advocates sued ICE earlier this year office over its low rate of release for asylum-seekers in the southern region.
Two days after he was denied his release from ICE custody, the detention center segregated Hernandez-Diaz from the other inmates after he threatened a hunger strike.
While officers at the detention center noticed he had been eating meals on Oct. 11 and 12, by Tuesday they told ICE officials that Hernandez-Diaz had missed his “ninth consecutive meal and declared a hunger strike, citing his frustration with the immigration process.”
Then, on Tuesday just after 2 p.m., medical staffers at the detention center declared him dead of suicide in the cell.
“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody. While any death in ICE custody is unfortunate, fatalities in ICE custody are exceedingly rare,” said Bryan Cox, a spokesperson for the agency. “Statistically, fatalities in ICE custody occur at a small fraction of the national average for detained populations in federal or state custody. ICE had a total of 9 detainee deaths out of more than 396,000 individuals in custody for all of Fiscal Year 2018 -- approximately 2.25 deaths per 100,000 persons.”
The case will be reviewed by the agency, the spokesperson said.