By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Top lawmakers in Congress criticized the Department of Homeland Security yesterday for failing to provide adequate medical care to detained immigrants, and said they plan to demand explanations today from Secretary Michael Chertoff and Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) announced that Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and others will question Chertoff and Myers in a meeting today about reports of medical negligence and deaths of immigrants in ICE detention, as well as improper detentions of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), head of the panel's immigration subcommittee, said they have asked for relevant Homeland Security records and plan a hearing after Congress returns from its Memorial Day recess.
"We intend to press them on these issues. We cannot accept the nature of what is going on," Menendez said at a news conference with family members of illegal immigrants who died in U.S. custody, as well as representatives of immigrant advocacy groups and the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The Constitution is what makes this country unique in the world, and its presumption of fundamental rights for all people at the end of the day makes us the beacon of light for the rest of the world. I am not willing to have it eroded," Menendez said.
His statements followed reports of detainee deaths and substandard medical care in The Washington Post, the New York Times and the CBS News program "60 Minutes."
"The Department of Homeland Security's denial and delay is leading to death and disability," Conyers said. "It is time for answers, not excuses."
The Post reported this month that thousands of pages of internal government documents depicted a "massive crisis in detainee medical care" in a health-care system run by the Division of Immigration Health Services, a small agency taken over by ICE last fall. During the past five years, about 83 immigrants died during or soon after being taken into custody.
Actions by medical staff may have contributed to 30 of those deaths, according to internal government reviews, confidential medical records and outside medical experts who reviewed some cases for The Post. The Post's series also described flawed medical judgments and administrative practices, neglectful guards, poorly trained technicians, sloppy record-keeping, lost files, and staff shortages, among other problems.
Myers, in a published article, has called any death "regrettable" but said the media reports were misleading and exaggerated. Since its formation in 2003, ICE has improved the detention procedures that it inherited from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service for a population that often does not have health insurance, Myers wrote.
She added that ICE doubled spending on detainee health care between 2003 and 2007, to $100 million. However, independent analysts said such statistics are misleading. Medical spending has not kept pace with the growth in the detainee population, which has more than tripled since 2001, to 311,000 over the course of a year, according to ICE and the Government Accountability Office, Congress's audit arm.
Myers also said that while the number of detainees has increased more than 30 percent since 2004, the number of detention deaths fell from 29 in 2004 to seven in 2007, and that the mortality rate fell from 10.8 deaths per 100,000 detainees to 3.5.
Conyers and Lofgren are among those criticizing the death rates claimed by ICE. Although the agency has compared its record favorably with statistics on medical problems in the broader U.S. prison population, immigrant detainees are younger than members of that population. Most stay in custody for less than three weeks, although many are held far longer. Conyers's committee has requested Homeland Security documents on all detainee deaths, and a breakdown of death rates by age and length of time in custody.
Menendez, Conyers and Lofgren introduced legislation this month that would require the Homeland Security Department to set up procedures for timely and effective health care for detainees, ensure that medical decisions are based on professional clinical judgments, and require the reporting of all deaths to Congress and the department's inspector general. The department is not now required to track or report such deaths.
The inquiry comes as the federal government has dramatically escalated its detention of immigrants, who are typically imprisoned under a penal model even though most are charged with administrative immigration violations. Detainees are not guaranteed the protections provided to citizens or criminal defendants, including access to public defenders, and instead are held under 38 nonbinding detention guidelines.
Congressional investigators reported last year that many detainees are improperly barred from making even a single phone call to a lawyer and cannot file grievances or seek consular help because of inadequate internal procedures. ICE is spending $2.4 billion on detention and removal operations this year.