Two new reports document something that has emerged as a serious issue for federal immigration authorities: a lack of adequate health care for detainees.
With some 400,000 people held by immigration authorities last year alone, stories about detainees receiving inadequate health care abound, and sometimes the consequences are fatal.
A recent case in Virginia involved a 48-year-old man, originally from Germany, named Guido Newbrough. He was being held in a county jail last year in Virginia when he became sick with a severe bacterial infection.
Susana Barciela of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center says it was a death that could have been prevented. "Seventy-five percent of the people who are treated for this disease properly survive," she says. "But he was given no treatment whatsoever, even though he'd been complaining for weeks."
Since 2003, advocates say, at least 80 people have died either in immigration custody or shortly after their release. The exact number is difficult to know, they say, because Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is not required to make that information public.
'You Had To Suffer Through The Pain'
Some of those cases — and many others that didn't end with fatalities — are detailed in two reports released in Miami by the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center and Human Rights Watch.
The Human Rights Watch report focuses on the plight of women held in immigration custody. Researcher Meghan Rhoad says that while only about 10 percent of detainees typically are women, they're held by a system that in many cases ignores basic needs.
"It is a system that needlessly shackles pregnant women with no criminal background or history of violence," she says.
Human Rights Watch says it interviewed dozens of former and current detainees and visited nine facilities in three states. The group found many stories like that of Marlene Jaggernauth.
Jaggernauth lived in the U.S. for 27 years as a permanent legal resident until 2003, when she was picked up by immigration officials because of a seven-year-old shoplifting charge. In the two years she was in custody, Jaggernauth says, she was held in four different facilities — all county prisons.
She says detainees are often housed with the criminal population and treated like criminals. And in her experience, requests for health care were usually ignored. "In the meantime, you had to suffer through the pain," Jaggernauth says. "In some desperate cases, other detainees actually had to have their family members call 9-1-1 from the outside."
Angling For White House Attention
The findings, while shocking, are hardly new. Many of the issues have been raised by news organizations and by the immigration agency's own inspector general.
But the reports aim to focus attention on the issue at a critical time: A new administration has arrived in Washington and is reviewing past budget decisions and policies.
A spokeswoman for ICE says officials there are reviewing the reports and can't yet comment.
Last week, in a letter to Human Rights Watch, an official with ICE said the agency was "grateful" for the work the advocacy group was doing in this area and said it would consider the recommendations.