House Democrats charge health care inadequate in ICE facilities amid allegations of medical neglect

Detainees in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement face inadequate medical care and challenges in accessing legal services, according to a report released Monday by the Democratic-led House Homeland Security Committee.

The report, which is the result of a yearlong committee investigation, highlights shortcomings in the care of detainees and the oversight process amid allegations of medical neglect.

“Our investigation has made abundantly clear that ICE must establish better processes to identify and correct deficiencies at its detention centers that don’t meet ICE’s own standards of care,” House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi said in a statement.

“The COVID-19 pandemic, and its quick spread within ICE facilities, has further highlighted how failures to meet these standards of care are a matter of life and death for migrants and employees,” he added. More than 5,800 detainees have tested positive for coronavirus, according to ICE statistics.

ICE said in a statement that it intends to “closely review the report,” adding, “ICE welcomes any recommendations that help improve agency processes and ensure that civil detention operations provide a safe and secure environment for detainees. The health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities.”

Over the course of a year, committee staff visited eight ICE facilities nationwide, interviewed more than 400 detained individuals, spoke with local ICE and facility officials, and reviewed facility inspection reports. Many of the detainees staff spoke with were seeking asylum in the US.

The report comes days after a whistleblower complaint detailed a high rate of hysterectomies and alleged medical misconduct at an ICE facility in Georgia. The complaint, which was filed to the Department of Homeland Security inspector general, also included a litany of concerns about the facility’s handling of the coronavirus.

Democratic Homeland Security Committee members Reps. Kathleen Rice of New York, Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey and Nanette Barragán of California cited the complaint as another example of medical concerns during a forum Monday after the release of the report.

“These allegations, if confirmed, are not only horrifying, it would constitute human rights violations,” Rice said.

The 23-page report released Monday underscores persistent concerns about care of detainees in ICE custody. For example, it found that ICE and its contracted facilities appeared dismissive about the mental and physical care of those in custody. “The Committee encountered several staff working at detention facilities that diminished the seriousness of suicide attempts as well as evidence of detainee medical issues going untreated,” it reads.

One of the frequent complaints heard by staff from detainees was difficulty obtaining information about their immigration cases and accessing legal services. Another common concern shared by detainees was the misuse of “segregation,” otherwise known as solitary.

“For example, individuals held at River complained that guards threatened placing detainees in segregation for engaging in permissible acts that detention staff considered disruptive, like submitting too many medical requests,” the report says, referring to River Correctional Center in Louisiana.

Inadequate care of migrants in immigration detention can also go unchecked and unresolved as a result of deficiencies in the oversight process, according to the report. It alleges that oversight programs are “too broad, too infrequent, and preannounced” and that the Department of Homeland Security has “few mechanisms to enforce corrections and rarely uses those mechanisms,” among other issues.

“While the committee cannot speak to the conditions of facilities outside the scope of its review, the evidence uncovered was glaring in its demonstration of patterns of violations that persist across the country, different contractors, and types of detention facilities,” the report reads.

ICE uses a variety of facilities for detention purposes, some of which are owned and operated by private companies and contracted by the agency. In 2019, the Department of Homeland Security inspector general released a report that found ICE “rarely imposed financial penalties” despite instances of serious harm to detainees.

In response to the watchdog report, ICE said it was committed to ensuring detainee safety and agreed with the watchdog’s recommendations to improve.

Still, Monday’s committee report says issues continue. In one case, for example, a contracted inspector found no shortcomings related to health care of detainees, but a follow-up check by ICE “identified significant deficiencies that ultimately led to the transfer of detainees for their own safety.” Falling short of standards, the report argues, can put detainees at risk.

“The Committee’s review of the conditions at ICE detention facilities confirms that ICE does not do enough to ensure that its own standards of confinement are met,” the report concludes, adding, “Accordingly, ICE must establish processes to better identify and correct deficiencies at its detention facilities.”