HOUSTON — A Mexican immigrant’s death near Houston after he was evacuated from the path of Hurricane Irma in September marked the end of the deadliest year for immigrants held in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in nearly a decade.
Felipe Almazan-Ruiz, 51, was taken to a hospital days after being booked into an immigration contract detention facility in Livingston, according to ICE. Almazan-Ruiz had initially been arrested by ICE in Miami in July, but ended up in Texas after hurricanes struck both states. He died Sept. 17 from cardiac arrest.
Around the country, 12 immigrants died in detention in the 2017 fiscal year, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the most since fiscal year 2009. Ten immigration detainees perished in government custody the year before. Nationwide, more than 30,000 immigrants are held at any one time in ICE detention facilities.
The number of deaths in 2017 has alarmed immigration activists, who have long accused immigration officials and detention center operators of providing delayed or substandard medical care and ignoring complaints of illness.
“Simply put, detention and deportation are a deadly business,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership. Libal, whose group monitors civil rights conditions, said the “high-profile failings of the detention system in Texas” make him worried about plans to further increase the number of detainees held at privately owned facilities here. A 1,000-bed for-profit detention center is planned to open in 2018 in Conroe, already home to another detention facility.
ICE defends its record of overseeing immigration detention centers that are run by private and government entities.
“ICE has made substantial progress on implementing reforms across its detention system, and that important work is ongoing,” said spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa said in an email.
Zamarripa said among other changes, the agency has simplified the process for detainees to get outside medical care and designated coordinators to monitor detainees with complicated cases.
Older statistics and ICE records show that deaths have declined from the levels reported during first three years after ICE was founded. In fiscal year 2004, a total of 28 deaths were reported.
Many of the 2017 deaths remain under investigation by ICE, so limited information is available. Reports on detention fatalities often are released years after they occur in response to Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.
A deadly month
May 2017 was a particularly deadly month. Two people died a day apart in Georgia detention centers, and on May 31, Vicente Caceres-Maradiaga, a 44-year-old Honduran immigrant, collapsed while playing soccer at the privately owned Adelanto Detention Facility in southern California and died in an ambulance on the way to a hospital.
He was the third immigrant to die at Adelanto in 2017 and the sixth death at the privately owned GEO Group facility since 2011.
Since ICE was created in 2003, 85 detention centers nationwide have reported a total of 176 deaths. Seventeen facilities have had three or more deaths, including eight at the CoreCivic detention center in Houston and 15 at the CoreCivic-owned Eloy Detention Center.
For more than a decade, various civil rights groups have released reports on detention deaths, repeatedly identifying persistent problems with medical care and suicide prevention.
Last year, the human rights group Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) and Human Rights Watch filed a formal complaint and published a report documenting failures in medical care in 12 detainee deaths from late 2012 to mid-2015, citing ICE’s own death investigations as well as independent medical experts who reviewed those reports. Other immigrants’ rights groups previously identified another eight deaths as potentially preventable.
Five of the deaths flagged in those reports occurred at the Eloy facility. Adelanto in California and the Houston Detention Center each had two deaths identified by advocates as preventable or related to neglectful medical care.
In December, the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a report in response to concerns raised by immigration rights groups and complaints to a hotline about ICE detainee treatment and care.
Inspectors made unannounced visits to six facilities, including the Eloy facility. Their report found inadequate complaint procedures, situations in which detainees held only on immigration violations were improperly mixed with detainees with violent criminal histories and other potentially unsafe conditions.
“Overall, the problems we identified undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment,” inspectors said in their report.
Among other criticisms, the OIG report said that some facilities it visited appeared to have delayed medical care and misused solitary confinement — factors that non-profit immigration groups have described as a contributing factor in recent immigrant deaths attributed to natural causes such as cancer, heart attacks and high blood pressure as well as suicides.
In the agency’s 14-year history, approximately 27 detainees have died by suicide, apparent suicide or self-inflicted injuries, most often caused by choking or hanging. In one case, Clemente Mponda appears to have hoarded and taken a fatal dosage of medications while detained in Houston in 2013, according to the ICE review of his death. Mponda, who had a history of mental illness, was held in solitary confinement eight months during his detention before he killed himself in an isolation cell with his own medicine.
More public scrutiny
Deaths last year at the Adelanto facility in California also have led to increased public scrutiny of the treatment of medical and psychological conditions.
In March, Osmar Epifanio Gonzalez-Gadba was found hanging in his cell in Adelanto — one of three deaths reported there in FY 2017. Another six attempted suicides occurred at that facility in a year-long period ending in August 2017, according to 911 call logs obtained from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.
Pablo Paez, vice president for corporate relations for the GEO Group, which owns the Adelanto detention center as well as detention centers in Texas, said in an emailed statement that the company meets detention standards set by ICE and corrections industry groups and that medical care is often provided by the government.
“GEO has a long-standing record providing high-quality, culturally responsive services in safe, secure, and humane environments that meet the needs of the individuals in the care and custody of federal immigration authorities,” Paez wrote.
A spokesman for CoreCivic, operators of the Eloy Detention Center, also has defended its large detention centers that had multiple deaths, saying medical care is provided by other contractors and deaths are few compared to the number of detainees processed.
Another man died in ICE detention last month — the first death of the 2018 fiscal year. Kamyar Samimi, a 64-year-old Iranian immigrant who arrived in the U.S. as a student in 1976, “fell ill” at a GEO Group-owned detention facility in Aurora, Colorado, according to ICE. Samimi, who had legal permanent residency status, died after being taken to the hospital.
The preliminary cause of death was cardiac arrest, ICE said.
Lise Olsen contributed to this report.
Jeanne Kuang is a staff reporter at Injustice Watch, a non-partisan, not-for-profit newsroom that explores institutional failures that obstruct justice and equality. Injustice Watch interns Ashley Hackett and Rachel Frazin also contributed research.