US Immigration System Is Abusive And Deadly

The fifth immigrant child in the last six months has died after being detained by US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). The 16 year old apparently was found unresponsive during a regular welfare check and, at present, the cause of death is unknown, although the child had earlier been diagnosed with the flu. Upon learning of that diagnosis, CBP transferred the child to another CBP facility in order to isolate him from other detainees. CBP could not explain why the child had not been hospitalized or why the child had been in its custody for six days despite the legal requirement that CBP only hold him for a maximum of 72 hours.

Just six days ago, a two year old immigrant child died from complications from pneumonia after being hospitalized for most of the last month after he and his mother were detained by CBP on April 3rd. Last month, another 16 year old died from a brain infection in a Corpus Christi, Texas hospital two weeks after being detained by CBP and transferred to a Office of Refugee Services shelter. Last December, a 7 year old died from a bacterial infection two days after being taken into CBP custody and on Christmas Day, an eight year old, also in CBP custody, died from complications from the flu.

It is not surprising that Central American immigrants, especially children, would be arriving at the border either with health problems or very susceptible to them. Chances are they were undernourished before they even began their journey north and the long trip likely exacerbates that situation. Being detained in overcrowded conditions as well as being forced to sleep out in the open on dirt and grass also exposes those already vulnerable immigrants to other potential diseases. Those conditions also make it more difficult for those effected to be diagnosed early and accurately. In addition, language difficulties and communication issues also hinder proper diagnosis.

While it is obviously impossible for CBP to be responsible for the health problems of immigrants who show up at the border, it is also clear that CBP is obviously incapable of making the necessary and proper medical determinations in the current environment, primarily because the entire CBP infrastructure has been geared toward handling only adults and specifically adult males. There also seems to be no real protocol at CBP for dealing with immigrants who are ill, despite earlier promises to increase medical checks on detained children. For instance, in this latest death, it is unclear whether the child was looked at by a medical professional and why he was not transferred to a medical facility rather than another CBP facility when it was thought he had the flu.

The conditions under which immigrants are currently held by CBP, often sleeping out in the open air on the ground or on tarmac, are horrendous. But things may actually be worse for those who are held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), especially for those who are mentally ill. The Intercept has a shocking report that shows ICE is abusing the use of solitary confinement when dealing with difficult detainees. According to the report, there have nearly 8,500 documented case of ICE placing detainees in solitary confinement and the procedure has become almost standard for dealing with even minor issues. The report found that ICE “has used isolation cells to punish immigrants for offenses as minor as consensual kissing, and to segregate hunger strikers, LGBTQ detainees, and people with disabilities”. In at least 187 cases, the detainee was held in solitary confinement for more than six months and 32 were held for more than one year. At least 13 detainees who have committed suicide under ICE’s watch had been placed in solitary at one point and in 8 of those cases the procedures for putting them in solitary were ignored or violated.

More appallingly, there were more than 370 cases of detainees being sent to solitary because they were apparently suicidal. As one medical expert noted, “this is the equivalent of pouring gasoline on a fire”. Solitary confinement results in serious psychological and physiological trauma, often accompanied by hallucinations and increased thoughts of suicide. The UN has recommended banning the practice except in the most extreme circumstances and recommends people with mental illness should never be subject to the practice. Many US states have banned the use of solitary entirely in their state prisons. Not surprisingly, there were more than 200 cases of detainees already in solitary being moved to a different, more frequently monitored version of solitary known as a “suicide watch”.

In fact, the number of cases of ICE’s use of solitary confinement may be vastly understated. ICE “does not keep records of every solitary confinement placement. Instead, it tracks only cases in which detainees were held in isolation for more than 14 days, and when immigrants with a ‘special vulnerability’ were placed in isolation. This latter category includes detainees who have a mental illness, have been victims of abuse, or would be at risk in a facility’s general population due to their sexual orientation or gender identity”. That indicates there could be far more cases of detainees being sent to solitary for less than 14 days who would go unreported.

It is important to remember that many of the people held by ICE have committed no crime at all, much less been convicted of one. Yet they are subject to conditions that the most serious violent criminals in many state prison systems will never have face. I encourage you to read the entire Intercept article, if you can stomach it.

Lastly, just as CBP is violating the law virtually every day by holding immigrant children for longer than the legal 72 hour period, so to has ICE apparently been violating the policies and procedures concerning solitary confinement for years. Since 2014, a policy adviser for Homeland Security’s Civil Rights and Civil Liberties office has been trying to rein in the abuse of solitary confinement within ICE. ICE is required to search for alternatives to solitary and document why those alternatives were not chosen for each case that resulted in such confinement. The policy advisor found that process was almost uniformly ignored and no such documentation existed nor was there any indication that a search for alternatives routinely occurred. Despite years of promises to reform the practices around solitary, DHS and ICE made few significant changes and eventually the whistleblower came forward publicly this year, prompting the Intercept’s investigation.

Because they deal with non-citizen’s with limited legal rights in this country, both CBP and ICE have in many ways become a law unto themselves, especially in the post-9/11 world where the agencies have been subsumed into DHS. It is because of its continued lawless and abusive behavior that progressives have called for the abolition of ICE, doing so with the full knowledge that the actual role that the agency is supposed to perform must still be filled, just in a different way and with a different structure. In the wake of its treatment of immigrants along the border, similar arguments could be made for the CBP. What is clear is that the present system is far too abusive and has resulted in too many unnecessary deaths.

Originally published at on May 22, 2019.

Thoughtful discussions on politics and economics with some sidelights in photography and astronomy.

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