Coronavirus

As ICE Broke Its Own Healthcare Protocols, Dozens of Immigrants Died in Detention

A new report accuses ICE of not following the agency's internal medical care protocols.
A new report accuses ICE of not following the agency's internal medical care protocols. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
By all accounts, Mauro Rivera Romero was clearly ill.

After U.S. Border Patrol officers arrested him on a Greyhound bus near El Paso in 2011, he complained of persistent abdominal pain. He told officers he'd been hospitalized for a stomach infection only days before.

On his second day in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention, Romero, 42, was admitted to the medical unit, where a registered nurse recorded his resting heart rate at 129 beats per minute. Instead of referring Romero to a higher-level medical provider — as ICE medical protocols would dictate in this case — Romero was released back into the detention center’s general population.

He submitted three separate written complaints to detention officers over the next two days requesting urgent medical attention for his increasing abdominal pain, which had intensified so much that he couldn’t walk.


Officers took more than 24 hours to respond to his appeals; Romero died of a treatable infection only three days after entering ICE custody.

Romero is one of dozens of people who perished in ICE detention centers across the U.S. as a result of negligent medical care, according to a new report published last week by researchers at the University of Southern California.

The report focuses on 55 detainees who died in ICE custody between 2011 and 2018. (Altogether, 71 died in total during this period, but researchers could not access records for all cases).

In nearly 80% of the 55 cases, ICE officials violated their agency’s own internal medical care standards, “suggesting repeated and systemic failures across multiple areas of health care” in detention facilities, according to the report.

ICE did not respond to the Observer's request for comment.

To César Cuauhméhtoc García Hernández, a law professor at Oklahoma State University who focuses on immigration and its criminalization, immigrants dying in ICE custody is "unfortunately nothing new."

What stands out, Garcia Hernández says, is the relatively short amount of time the detainees in the report spent in ICE custody, compared to how long they had lived in the U.S. beforehand.

On average, the individuals in the study had spent about 15 years in the United States before being locked up, but died after only 39 days in ICE custody, researchers found.

"These are people who are making their lives in the United States, who are rather healthy, and then they get picked up by ICE and are sent to one of these detention centers, and within a little over a month, they’re dead." - César Cuauhméhtoc García Hernández

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“These are people who are making their lives in the United States, who are rather healthy, and then they get picked up by ICE and are sent to one of these detention centers, and within a little over a month, they’re dead,” said Garcia Hernández.

ICE officials’ pattern of lethal medical neglect in past years presents a unique danger in the pandemic era — especially in Texas, which holds more people in immigration detention than any other state.

Coronavirus spread especially quickly inside the U.S.’s overcrowded prisons, jails and detention centers last year. While the number of people in ICE detention had dropped to historic lows by the time President Donald Trump left office in January, it has since returned to pre-pandemic levels under President Biden.

According to federal data, 27,292 people were in ICE facilities across the U.S. as of July 3, the most since April last year. Coronavirus cases among detainees have surged since; at least 7,500 cases have been reported in the past three months alone.

“My main concern now is that we’re going to start seeing more deaths because of COVID, as the number of detained increases in the next few months,“ Garcia Hernández said.

In the report, at least six of those who died had first been held in criminal detention, such as a county jail, and then died once they were transferred to ICE's custody.

Earlier this month, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott met several sheriffs of border counties, he said he wants the state to give more money to bankroll local law enforcement to enforce immigration laws. "Our goal is not to release them," the governor said. "Our goal is to jail them."
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Michael Murney is a reporting fellow at the Dallas Observer and a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. His reporting has appeared in Chicago’s South Side Weekly and the Chicago Reader.
Contact: Michael Murney