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Detained to death

A bill in Congress aims to change the sometimes fatal lack of health standards at immigrant centers.

May 20, 2008

Joseph Dantica, an elderly Haitian pastor, was scared. A gun battle on the roof of his church in 2004 had left him a target of gangs, so after 30 years of visiting the U.S., he decided to emigrate. Carrying a valid passport and visa, Dantica flew to Miami and applied for asylum. It cost him his life.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement jailed Dantica pending a hearing and confiscated his prostate and blood pressure medication. Soon he became ill. Officials first accused him of faking it, then sent him to a hospital. But Dantica was not seen by a doctor for another 24 hours. By then, his condition had worsened. The 81-year-old grandfather -- and uncle to author Edwidge Danticat -- died that night, alone. ICE had barred his relatives from visiting.

Such callousness reflects a neglect that is shockingly permissible against immigrants nationwide. The country's 300 immigrant detention centers, including facilities in Los Angeles, have voluntary healthcare standards, not mandatory ones. Because of that, immigrants who are detained at the centers -- some are in the country illegally; others are held because of clerical errors or while they wait for their asylum claims to be heard -- often are subjected to indifference, even cruelty.

Take the case of Francisco Castaneda. The Salvadoran immigrant was in custody at a center in Otay Mesa in March 2006 when health officials there recommended a biopsy for a lesion. The Homeland Security Department said no. Castaneda filed grievances that were ignored. The lesion suppurated, and a second developed; all he was given was Ibuprofen. Under pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union, Homeland Security relented. It dodged paying for the procedure, however, by releasing Castaneda from custody just days before it was to take place. Castaneda, 36, died one year later.

ICE maintains that few people actually die in detention centers, and that may be true, but it doesn't account for people such as Castaneda, who die after leaving custody. And then, ICE isn't exactly forthcoming on the subject. When Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) asked the agency for a list of the dead, it told her no. She obtained one from the New York Times. Lofgren has introduced HR 5950, the Detainee Basic Medical Care Act, a bill that would require Homeland Security to establish mandatory standards for basic healthcare in all detention centers. It also would require the department to report deaths to the inspectors general of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice within 48 hours.

Mandating humanity shouldn't be necessary, and Homeland Security could do this on its own, but it won't, so this bill is needed. Our treatment of immigrants, illegal or otherwise, shouldn't include watching them die.

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