Bills Look to Improve Health Care for Detained Immigrants

September 09, 2008

Bills have been introduced in Congress to establish procedures for the timely and effective delivery of health care to immigration detainees. The Detainee Basic Medical Care Act of 2008, introduced as H.R. 5950 in the House of Representatives and S. 3006 in the Senate, would require the Secretary of Homeland Security to set procedures for both medical and mental health care in order to ensure continuity of care during detention. It would also require the reporting of detainee deaths to the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and to Congress. The bills come in response to a number of highly publicized detainee deaths and complaints of inadequate medical care that have been covered by the press and highlighted in congressional hearings.

Law provides the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with broad authority to detain non-citizens while awaiting determination of whether they should be removed from the country. Detainees can be asylum seekers, green card holders with minor immigration violations, and immigrants caught up in administrative and paper-work related mistakes.

ICE's National Detention Standards state, "All detainees shall have access to medical services that promote detainee health and general well-being." Yet there have been many complaints about the way in which the standards are carried out. According to The New York Times, "current rules are voluntary, not legally enforceable and not uniformly followed". Thousands of pages of government documents obtained by The Post reveal substantial staff shortages in detention centers and a concern on the part of doctors that they are violating medical ethics.

According to figures provided by ICE in May, 71 immigrants had died in its custody since January 2004. Two such immigrants whose stories were reported by The New York Times are Boubacar Bah and Hui Lui Ng. Bah died after falling and suffering a fractured scull and multiple brain hemorrhages; his injuries went untreated for more than 14 hours. Ng, who complained of severe pain that did not respond to pain relief medication and who grew too weak to walk, was accused by officials of faking his condition. He was denied a wheelchair and an independent medical evaluation. A federal judge insisted that Mr. Ng receive the care he needed, but Mr. Ng died six days later of terminal cancer and with a fractured spine.

While officials state that the number of deaths in its detention centers has declined each year in the midst of an increasing detainee population, Representative Zoe Lofgren (CA-16) told The Times that detainees denied critical treatment may die after release or removal, meaning that deaths due to mistreatment go unaccounted for. The American Civil Liberties Union has further pointed out that "no government body is charged with accounting for deaths in ICE detention, a patchwork of county jails, privately run prisons and federal facilities".

The Detainee Basic Medical Care Act of 2008 was introduced into the House of Representatives by Representative Zoe Lofgren (CA-16), with New York Representatives Nydia M. Velazquez and Jerrold Nadler signing on as co-sponsors. The bill has been referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary. The companion bill was introduced to the Senate by Senator Robert Menendez (NJ), where it has been read and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary for deliberation, revision and debate.

To express your support for these bills, you can call your Representative and Senators and urge them to co-sponsor H.R. 5950 <pdf> and S. 3005 <pdf> respectively. The Capitol Switchboard is (202) 224-3121. To find out who your Representative is, input your address at; for Senators, select your state at

The stories of Boubacar Bar and Hiu Lui Ng have been covered by the New York Times.

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