July 3, 2008

ACLU Sues Homeland Security over Immigrant Deaths

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a freedom of information lawsuit June 25 against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for refusing to turn over public documents related to the deaths of dozens of immigrant detainees. Filed in US District Court in Washington D.C., the lawsuit requests that the court order DHS to carry out a reasonable records search and speed up the processing of documents. The ACLU’s legal action arises from alleged government abuses connected to the deaths of immigrants held in various detention facilities in the United States. The deaths were reportedly due to medical neglect.

“We know that medical care provided in many immigration centers is grossly inadequate and has resulted in unnecessary suffering and death,” charged ACLU National Prison Project Director Elizabeth Alexander. “DHS must not be allowed to keep information about in-custody deaths secret..”

Also named in the lawsuit were the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and the DHS Office of the Inspector General. There was no immediate comment about the lawsuit from the DHS or any of its agencies.

In a statement, the ACLU’s Elizabeth Alexander urged the DHS and ICE to fulfill their obligation to inform the public why deaths of immigrants in US custody have occurred. “Unless ICE exhibits full transparency by releasing all of the information that we have requested, we are left little choice but to believe that it has something to hide,” Alexander added.

Media reports of allegedly sub-standard healthcare conditions facing immigrant detainees have proliferated in recent months as the number of incarcerated immigrants has soared.

A report from the Transnational Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of Syracuse University revealed that nearly 11 percent of 200,667 recent federal prisoners were serving time on immigration-related offenses.

Although immigration law violations are still generally regarded as civil violations, the Bush Administration is increasingly prosecuting immigrants for fraud, identity theft, false documentation, conspiracy, and illegal re-entry.

According to TRAC, 9,350 immigrants were prosecuted for criminal offenses during the month of March 2008 alone. The prosecution case load was more than double the one for the month of January.

Besides federally-operated jails, thousands of immigrants are held in private prisons operated by Halliburton and other companies contracted by the DHS. In 2007, the ACLU filed suit against the Corrections Corporation of America-run San Diego Correctional Facility for allegedly neglecting the medical needs of detainees. According to the civil liberties group, denial of medical services and bad healthcare policies resulted in the death of “numerous detainees” at the California prison.

The DHS’ handling of immigrant detainees is also under scrutiny on Capitol Hill. In May, members of the House Committee on the Judiciary requested information from the DHS about reports that upwards of 250 migrants were sedated with psychiatric drugs while being deported in recent years.

On the legislative front, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) has introduced H.R. 5950, the Detainee Basic Medical Care Act of 2008. The measure would require the DHS to improve the delivery of medical and mental healthcare services to immigrant detainees, as well as toughen reporting requirements about the deaths of immigrant prisoners.

“We are not talking about Cadillac health care here, but the government is obligated to provide basic care,” said Rep. Lofgren in a press statement.

“Many of those in immigration custody are there for minor violations, many for administrative and paperwork related mistakes. Their detention should not be a death sentence.”

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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