ICE Detainees With High-Risk Medical Conditions Fought For Months To Be Released

Josmith used to dread nightfall inside his ICE cell because it meant he would struggle to breathe for hours.

The 25-year-old Haitian asylum seeker was diagnosed with asthma in 2015 and was able to control it with medication – but after entering ICE’s Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, New Mexico, Josmith’s condition gets worse as he struggles to breathe throughout the day. , and it was always harder when he tried to sleep. Fear of catching COVID in the cramped quarters of the detention center didn’t help.

Josmith said he felt “suffocated” and that he “could die here.”

ICE detainees like Josmith, who due to pre-existing medical conditions are at increased risk of more serious side effects from contracting COVID-19, may be released under federal court ban enacted in 2020. Amid soaring COVID rates, a judge at the time ordered authorities to identify all ICE detainees at higher risk of severe illness and death. and consider releasing them unless they pose a danger to property or people.

In a court hearing on October 7, 2020, US judge Jesus Bernal said that “only in rare circumstances” ICE will not release immigrants at risk of not being detained. tie.

Hundreds of immigrants have been released. But as the pandemic progressed, lawyers and advocates say immigrants like Josmith have fallen through the cracks. To release some medically vulnerable people, lawyers have had to pressure ICE, but advocates say it’s not the solution for detainees without rights. legal representative.

Early in his stay, Josmith, who agreed to name only this story, said he sent more than a dozen requests to see his doctor about his asthma, but they were all ignored. He was finally able to see a doctor in early February after nearly collapsing from lack of oxygen. Medical staff at the Cibola County Correctional Center, operated for ICE by the private prison company CoreCivic, told Josmith he had high blood pressure. He was given medication and told he would see the doctor again in the morning, but that never happened. ICE said on February 7, three days after collapsing, he was given an inhaler to treat his asthma.

His attorney, Zoe Bowman from the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said that despite his health condition, ICE refused to release him by court order.

What may have contributed to Josmith’s struggle to be released is that he did not initially tell immigration officials that he had asthma. Bowman said Josmith then tried to tell paramedics by submitting a request to see a doctor, but were all ignored. In an effort to free Josmith, Bowman also sent a certified copy and translation of his asthma diagnosis from Haiti.

“Having asthma was a clear and precise reason for his release,” Bowman said.

Bowman noted that she has had to send numerous emails to ICE and make phone calls to push for the release of immigrants with high-risk medical conditions who have been detained for months.

“It doesn’t seem like ICE is following orders as usual,” she said. “There are very few professional attorneys serving thousands of ICE beds, and it feels like we just stumbled across these cases.”

When Bowman asked ICE about the many medical requests Josmith had submitted, the agency told her it hadn’t received any since November.

“It seems this strange situation where the official records do not match what is happening inside the prison,” she said. “The lack of medical attention is leading to some pretty scary situations for people who are being held there for months.”

Josmith was released from the Cibola County Correctional Center on February 16 after the agency received inquiries about his status from BuzzFeed News.

In a statement, an ICE official said Josmith was given an Albuterol inhaler on February 7 and released on February 16. He was released under an alternative to the detention program, ICE says it uses technology and case management to track immigrants outside of custody.

“ICE continues to evaluate individuals based on CDC guidance for those who may be at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19 to determine whether continued detention is appropriate,” the agency said. Immigration enforcement said.

ICE said Josmith was ordered to be dismissed by an immigration judge, but filed a pending appeal on Jan.

Corecivic spokesman Matthew Davio said in a statement that the company cares deeply about each person in their care. All of their immigration facilities are closely monitored by ICE and are required to undergo regular reviews, he said.

The Cibola County Correctional Center’s medical services team follows the CoreCivic standards for medical care and the ICE Performance-Based National Prison Standards, Davio said.

Corecivic, Davio said, had no role or influence in the release of medically vulnerable immigrants because of COVID-19.

“Our employees are trained and adhere to the highest ethical standards. Our commitment to keeping those entrusted to our care safe and secure is our top priority,” said Davio. speak. “We vehemently deny all allegations of mistreating detainees.”

The Cibola County Correctional Center has for years been criticized for its lack of medical care for immigrants detained there.

In 2020, Reuters found hundreds of unanswered requests for medical care in ICE’s only dedicated detention unit for transgender immigrants, located at the Cibola County Correctional Center. The report also found that quarantine procedures were poorly enforced and that detainees with mental and chronic illnesses were not receiving adequate treatment. These problems have resulted in the temporary closure and transfer of transgender women to other ICE facilities.

A secret memo sent by a top Department of Homeland Security official to ICE leadership have been of BuzzFeed News, revealed how immigrants at the Cibola County Correctional Center sometimes have to wait up to 17 days for urgent medical care, being exposed to poor hygiene and quarantine conditions during their stay. outbreaks of chickenpox and mumps, and not taking medications prescribed by your doctor for conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy, and tuberculosis.

ICE’s Cibola County facility has had 44 confirmed COVID cases since testing began in 2020. The total number of infections has increased from 25 cases in mid-January to 44 cases on February 1. The average daily population for the facility is about 83 people as of November.

However, UCLA School of Law COVID Behind Bars data projectThe company, which tracks the infection status of detainees across the US, says the actual number is likely much higher than ICE reported because of limited testing.

“Any number ICE is reporting is a low number because they haven’t tested extensively,” said Joshua Manson, a spokesman for the UCLA project. said.

The project gave ICE an F on the “data quality and reporting” scorecard.

Since ICE began testing for the virus, there have been 40,358 confirmed cases across all detention facilities, according to to the agent’s private numbers. As of Monday, there were 1,001 active cases.

Another Haitian asylum seeker, Fristzner, who declined to give his full name because he didn’t want to jeopardize his pending case, said he also struggled to get medical care. in ICE detention while trying to be released.

In 2015, the 32-year-old lost his right eye in a stabbing incident after participating in a protest against a local politician in Haiti. Those who attacked him were sent away by the politician, he said. Fristzner has moved to other parts of the island nation, but bandits, who control much of Haiti, will always threaten him. After being attacked again in 2017 by armed men in his home, he left Haiti.

Fristzner has tried to live in Chile, but said racism and a lack of immigration status made it difficult for Black immigrants. A group of men once hit and robbed him on the street while making racist comments, he said. So, like thousands of other Haitians in South America, Fristzner made the arduous journey to the US-Mexico border last summer. Along the way, he crossed 10 countries and passed through the dense jungles of Darién Gap, what UNICEF calls one of the most dangerous roads in the world, where Fristzner says he saw dead bodies on his way home. North.

In the end, Fristzner and thousands of Haitians crossed the border into Del Rio, Texas, to seek asylum, only to be forced to wait days in squalid conditions beneath a bridge. After being processed and detained by ICE in September 2021, Fristzner said he began to worry that his eye area had been infected. To make matters worse, he said, he also had severe overall vision loss in his left eye and was worried he would lose his sight altogether.

While in custody at ICE, Fristzner said, he was unable to read the Bible, make phone calls or do other basic tasks without assistance because of the loss of his eyesight. Bowman, who also accepted him as a client, said ICE initially refused to release him because they considered him a threat to public safety, despite having no criminal record and no history of immigration. reside in the US.

Fristzner said he sent at least 15 requests to see a doctor to no avail. Meanwhile, with each passing day, his eyesight deteriorated and he became more and more anxious.

“I only have one eye,” Fristzner said. “How am I supposed to live if I can’t see it?”

He believes his eye has been infected since his days under the bridge in Del Rio. He tried calling the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso to represent advocates — but, like most organizations that work with immigrants, it was overwhelmed and those seeking help can’t get over it. Even so, Fristzner continued to text back.

“Once I called at night when everyone was asleep and I prayed to God to help me,” he said. “The next morning, an official told me I had a legal visit from them.”

Bowman was eventually able to begin pressuring ICE to get him released, but only after the agency received questions from a reporter and member of Congress. Fristzner currently lives with his sister in Indiana.

He was later diagnosed with glaucoma, a condition that often results in vision loss due to damage to the nerve that connects the eye to the brain. However, he hopes to one day go to school and looks forward to completing his asylum application.

“Now I’m with my family and doing a lot better,” he said. “But I kept thinking about my friends in the prison, who were sick and couldn’t get out. I think of them because I know they are suffering a lot.”

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