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Immigration authorities tighten sedation rules

The new policy, which bans forcible drugging of detainees without a court order, follows a lawsuit by the ACLU.

January 12, 2008|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

U.S. immigration officials will no longer sedate foreign nationals against their will without a federal court order, according to an internal memo dated Jan. 9.

The government "may only involuntarily sedate an alien to facilitate removal where the Government has obtained a court order . . . " the memo read. "There are no exceptions to this policy. Emergency or exigent circumstances are not grounds for departures from this policy."

The nationwide policy change, which took effect immediately, comes seven months after the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson sued the government to stop the practice. The ACLU sued after learning that immigration officials drugged two foreign nationals against their will during failed attempts to deport them.

"We're very pleased that the government has finally agreed to stop forcibly drugging people without court orders," ACLU attorney Ahilan Arulanantham said Friday. "It appears that if the policy is implemented, the government will finally put a stop to this shameful, barbaric chapter of our immigration history."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice said in a written statement Friday that the directive clarifies procedures implemented last year.

"The directive is consistent with ICE's commitment to maintain safe, secure, and humane conditions for those in our custody," Kice said. "As always, medical sedation will only be considered as a last resort, such as instances where a detainee has a history of dangerous physical resistance to being removed. The decision to use medication will be made and coordinated by healthcare professionals."

This is the second change to the government's policy since it became public. In June, ICE amended the policy, but still allowed forced medication without a court order in an emergency. This week's change, however, requires a court order every time medication is to be given against a deportee's will.

Detained foreign nationals with medical or psychological problems who are being transferred or removed are accompanied by medical escorts from the U.S. Public Health Service. In the past, nurses or doctors sedated immigrants during deportation if they had a psychiatric disorder, were severely agitated during a flight or presented a danger to themselves or others. Medications commonly used are lorazepam, haloperidol, olanzapine and benztropine.

ICE Assistant Secretary Julie Myers acknowledged in September during Senate testimony that 56 deportees were administered psychotropic drugs between Oct. 1, 2006, and April 30, 2007. Thirty-three did not have any history of psychological problems but were given medication because of "combative behavior, with the imminent risk of danger to others and/or self," she said.

Myers said at the time that policy prohibited the use of drugs during deportation without a court order unless there was an emergency. "I am aware of, and deeply concerned about reports that past practices may not have conformed to ICE detention standards," she said.

The ACLU's two clients were medicated against their will in 2004 and 2006, according to the men and medical files they said they obtained from immigration authorities.

Indonesian immigrant Raymond Soeoth was appealing his case for political asylum when he was sedated with antipsychotic drugs in December 2004 at the Terminal Island detention facility in San Pedro. Senegal immigrant Amadou Diouf, also pursuing an appeal for permanent legal residency, was medicated in February 2006 while on a commercial plane at Los Angeles International Airport.

Both Soeoth and Diouf have been released and are fighting to stay in the country.

Despite the change in policy, the ACLU plans to continue its lawsuit. The organization still seeks compensation for Soeoth and Diouf. In addition, Arulanantham said he wants the government to release more information about how long the sedation policy existed and how many people were involuntarily medicated.

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