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Obama's moral obligation to detainees regardless of immigration status

Editorial

A Southern California case in which federal officials agreed to pay $1.95 million to settle a wrongful death suit points up the need for the Obama administration to make authorities responsible for their charges' basic health needs, no matter their immigration status.

April 08, 2011

Francisco Castaneda spent nearly a year locked up in Southern California immigration detention centers while fighting his deportation case. During that time, the Salvadoran national pleaded with the medical staff to treat painful lesions on his penis. He filed grievances about the quality of care and even sought outside help. Department of Homeland Security health officials responded by giving him Ibuprofen and denying his request for a biopsy because it was considered "an elective procedure." He was released in 2007, and within days was diagnosed with penile cancer.

If Castaneda had been an inmate assigned to a "supermax" prison instead of an immigrant held in a detention center, he would have been likely to receive treatment quickly. Instead, he died a year after he was released, at age 36. On Thursday, federal officials agreed to pay $1.95 million to settle a wrongful death suit brought by Castaneda's family. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement admitted in court that its negligence led to his death.

Late last year, in response to this and other cases, the Obama administration began overhauling the system to ensure that all detainees in federal custody — including asylum seekers, refugees and legal permanent residents, as well as those being deported for illegal entry — receive basic medical care. It may seem obvious that detainees are entitled to such care, as are convicted criminals in jails and prisons across the country. But consider some of the stories of the 118 immigrants who have died in federal custody since 2003. A transgender Mexican immigrant with AIDS, for instance, was denied medications for weeks. An elderly Haitian preacher seeking asylum in the United States had his blood pressure medication confiscated. A tailor from Guinea who became incoherent after a fall in his cell was placed in solitary confinement instead of being given medical attention.

The Obama administration eliminated the bureaucracy that had required prior approval from a Washington office for any outside care. Now, onsite doctors and nurses have the power to order biopsies, ultrasounds or dental exams without waiting weeks or months.

It's a positive step, but not enough given past failures. The Department of Homeland Security should make all existing detention system rules legally enforceable regulations. In the case of medical treatment, such a change would hold immigration officials accountable for providing basic care, including immediate medical and mental screenings. And it would allow detainees to protest substandard healthcare and appeal the denial of care.

President Obama did not create the detention system. He does, however, have the power and the moral obligation to ensure that all detainees are treated fairly and humanely, without regard to their immigration status.

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