Detained immigrants, many of them held at Florida jails, are often denied proper medical care, sometimes leading to death, according to two reports released Tuesday in Miami by leading advocacy groups.
In numerous cases officials working for Immigration and Customs Enforcement "botched, delayed or denied medical care," according to a joint statement by the two groups, Human Rights Watch and the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.
At one Florida facility, Glades County Detention Center, a mentally handicapped Haitian died after suffering seizures and a Honduran man nearly suffered the same fate after failing to receive treatment for acute appendicitis, both within a month of each other.
The Human Rights Watch report focused on female detainees, describing pregnant detainees being shackled and failure to follow up on signs of breast and cervical cancer. Conditions were often so humiliating that women were not given access to sanitary pads, the advocates said.
"ICE needlessly detains people with severe illnesses and those who pose no harm to U.S. communities," unnecessarily driving up costs, said the report by the Miami-based advocacy center, titled "Dying for Decent Care."
A Washington Post investigation last year found that 83 detainees have died in ICE custody nationwide since its creation in 2003. At least four more questionable deaths have occurred since then, according to the advocacy center.
"What happens nationwide in ICE detention, we see in Florida every day," said Susana Barciela, policy director for the advocacy center. "All too often detainees who need medical care are accused of faking illness and are treated like criminals. We need more independent oversight of medical practices to stop the abuses and ensure adequate health care in immigration custody."
Human Rights Watch released a letter from ICE's director of policy, Susan Cullen, stating that ICE does consider the special needs of female detainees, but that most immigrants are held for short periods of up to 17 days and thus do not require medical procedures such as pap smears.
In December 2008, ICE revised its medical care standards. Congress also has ordered the agency to spend $2 million this year on a thorough review of its medical care.
Among the victims cited in the reports was Valery Joseph, a mentally handicapped Haitian who died in June 2008 after suffering repeated seizures while detained at the Glades County Detention Center, west of Lake Okeechobee. A U.S. resident, Joseph was detained for deportation after serving a short jail sentence on a robbery charge. The Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center said the detention facility staff repeatedly cleared Joseph for "confinement" despite his medical condition.
Haitian author Edwige Danticat told a Miami press conference how her 81-year-old uncle, the Rev. Joseph Danticat, died in detention in Miami in 2004. He was accused of faking illness and denied medication despite being a throat cancer survivor and longtime sufferer of high blood pressure. His niece published an award-winning book last year about the incident, titled Brother, I'm Dying.
Others barely survived lack of medical care in detention. Often they were residents of the United States for many years, sometimes married to Americans and with U.S.-born children.
Yong Sun Harvill, 52, a Korean immigrant from Plant City, spent 15 months in ICE custody without receiving medical care despite a history of cancer and liver disease. A U.S. resident for 30 years, she was arrested for buying stolen jewelry a decade earlier. She was held at a Palm Beach County jail before being transferred to Arizona for medical treatment, 2,000 miles away from doctors, family and friends. She was released in July 2008 after she sued ICE with help from the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.
Immigration advocates are planning to take their report to Washington to lobby Congress and the Obama administration.
"All we are asking for is reasoned decisions," said Cheryl Little, director of the advocacy center. "Don't treat everyone as the worst of the worst."