Immigration law is notoriously complicated, labyrinthine, absurd, unforgiving…the list of adjectives goes on and on. It transects numerous other areas of law – criminal law, family law, privacy law, disability law. Immigration attorneys work at the nexus of these areas all the time.
For the last several weeks, I have been working with other advocates and immigration attorneys at one of those nexus points – that of health and immigration. Had you asked me a few years ago what I’d be doing, I would not have answered that I’d be fighting our government tooth and nail on behalf of asylum-seekers in dire need of critical care; arguing their right to claim asylum, sure, but not getting testimonials about the harm they suffered detained by our government. This place where immigration and medical law meet can be tragic and terrible.
I first worked on medical complaints during the last administration when I was working with the Dilley Pro Bono Project—an initiative dedicated to protecting the rights of the vulnerable women and children asylum seekers held at the family detention center in Dilley, Texas. We filed countless complaints with the oversight agencies of DHS – the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Office of the Inspector General – about the lack of adequate medical care, limited mental health options, the substantial due process violations created by the government’s failure to provide appropriate care, and overall treatment of families in detention there. Every day, we hear from mothers in Dilley that the detention center medical staff advise them to give their sick children water to address whatever ails them rather than providing appropriate medical care. On several occasions, gravely sick children have been airlifted to a hospital in San Antonio over 70 miles away, the nearest large medical center that can provide critical specialized care.
Diarrhea, pink eye, stomach bugs, and colds, along with far more serious medical concerns, went under-treated time after time. The perpetual sickness – which we called “Dilley Disease” – would be passed from volunteers, to staff, to moms, to kids, to ICE and CoreCivic’s (the private prison company) officers, and back again. Our work gathering declarations from mothers about their kids’ health, engaging with medical professionals, putting together Hill and press briefings to draw attention to what was happening – it was incessant and truly heartbreaking.
This week, we filed a new complaint—this time about inadequate care provided at a detention facility in Aurora, Colorado. In some ways, the mistreatment there seems familiar from my experience at Dilley, but in other ways it is new. The Aurora facility is, to put it bluntly, a mess.
Like Dilley, Aurora is run by a massive private prison company, in this case GEO Group. Our complaint isn’t the first time GEO has faced charges of mistreating those incarcerated at Aurora. There is currently a class action lawsuit pending against the company regarding forced labor there– the first lawsuit of its kind.
Also, as a Westword article noted, “Last year, the ACLU reported that some of its Iraqi clients were being harassed and intimidated by guards in an attempt to make them self-deport. And then there are the two individuals who have died at the Aurora detention center during the last six years: a 64-year-old man as recently as last December, and a 46-year-old man in 2012 who probably could have been saved from a heart attack had the staff known how to administer an EKG test or called an ambulance earlier once a medical emergency ensued.”
Despite these injustices, the Aurora facility continues to operate, pulling in millions of dollars for GEO Group and skirting transparency requirements that government-run facilities would have to meet.
But we found a way to see inside the center—through the declarations of the asylum seekers themselves. Remember, these are not people being held in criminal custody. These are fathers and husbands, mothers and wives, detained by the government while they pursue protection under our immigration laws.
The complaint is pretty long. We cited the two recent deaths at Aurora mentioned above, and also included the testimonials of seven detainees, some currently detained, some released, and one who was deported. Detainees like “Abdo” from South Sudan, who has PTSD but was shunted into solitary confinement which he said worsened his condition rather than receiving appropriate medical and mental health care. “Being alone makes the voices worse. When I sleep, they come and disturb me. They say the same thing over and over again…They say they are going to kill me and my parents. I get confused about what to do and why they are talking to me. I don’t know how to get rid of them so that I cannot listen to them anymore.”
Abdo is not alone in his mistreatment. “Claude,” from Haiti, a young man who was persecuted for being gay, was beaten severely and nearly lost his eyesight. He is seeking protection under our asylum laws. Yet instead of safety and medical care, he got stuck in Aurora for six months. GEO Group repeatedly refused to address his eye problems while he was detained. Over time, they worsened. Only after his release on parole was he able to get some help; he was nearly blind when that finally occurred. I try to imagine how I would feel, trapped for six months as I lose my ability to see, to have those windows shuttered, perhaps forever. It’s heart-wrenching.
There are more. A young man with hemophilia A denied treatment and a pregnant woman whose chest pain was ignored before finally being diagnosed as tuberculosis, among others.
This is wrong. It is wrong legally and wrong morally. The way the government is treating these immigrants, the way that GEO Group is treating them, is reprehensible. The government has taken away their freedom as they fight their immigration cases. Meanwhile, for most of the individuals detained in the Aurora facility, their detention is completely unnecessary – there are Alternatives to Detention (ATDs) that are as effective, but less costly and more humane.
But once the government incarcerates someone, there is a duty to ensure they are safe and their medical issues are addressed in a competent manner. The government is abandoning that duty and failing these detainees.
This has gone on for far too long. DHS must conduct an immediate investigation. Meanwhile, detainees must have increased access to appropriate medical and mental health treatment. Further, compliance with the rules guiding detainee treatment cannot be left to a prison company whose bottom line is profit, not the wellbeing of the people it is charged to house, feed, and keep safe. The government must follow applicable domestic and international law so that detainee treatment is humane and lives up to our values.
What can you do? Contact your congressional delegation and make sure they have a copy of the complaint and know what is going on. Take action by sharing information on your social media accounts, widening the network of people who know what is happening and care. People need to hold private prisons and the government accountable for what they are doing, and what they are not doing, for detainees. Volunteer through the Immigration Justice Campaign, whether as a non-lawyer or lawyer, to help detainees and to serve as an advocate and a witness to their treatment.