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ICE detainee hanged himself after being taken off suicide watch

Detainees walk in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., during a 2017 media tour. A 40-year-old Russian national who was facing deportation died this month after trying to hang himself at the jail. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

Mergensana Amar, a 40-year-old Russian citizen, showed up at a legal checkpoint on the U.S.-Mexico border last year and pleaded for protection in the United States.

He spent the next year in immigration custody, fighting deportation. In August, he launched a hunger strike that nearly killed him. In October, his jailers in Tacoma, Wash., found a handmade rope under his bed and briefly placed him on suicide watch, according to federal documents reviewed by The Washington Post.

On Nov. 15, he tried to hang himself and was placed on life support.

Amar died Saturday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said this week. His death — the second involving a detainee in an ICE facility since Oct. 1 — comes as immigration advocates raise questions about inmate safety and as the Trump administration holds record numbers of immigrants in custody.

“Amar’s death is an example of the lengths that ICE will go to keep people in detention,” said Maru Mora Villalpando, a community organizer with NWDC Resistance, an organization that tried to help Amar. “They could have released him and they decided not to. He kept telling us, ‘I’d rather die here than be deported.’ ”

Deaths in immigration jails plunged from 28 in 2004, under President George W. Bush, to six a decade later. But the count has slowly risen since. Twelve immigrants died in ICE custody in fiscal 2017, according to agency records, and nine died last fiscal year. ICE officials say a 10th immigrant killed himself in Egypt while he was being deported to Eritrea.

At the same time, President Trump is vowing to jail more immigrants who cross the border seeking asylum, frustrated that so many are released pending hearings in the country’s backlogged immigration courts.

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There have been as many as 44,000 migrants in ICE jails in recent weeks, about 10,000 more than the average under President Barack Obama. The surging numbers have exceeded ICE’s budget and prompted emergency cash infusions, including $55 million this month in a rare short-term apportionment from the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Homeland Security said.

Trump tweeted last weekend that “our very strong policy is Catch and Detain.”

ICE spokeswoman Tanya Roman said the federal government would conduct “a thorough investigation” of Amar’s death “to affirm that ICE protocols were followed.”

“Amar remained in good physical health before this incident and was monitored daily by ICE Health Service Corps medical professionals,” Roman said.

On Thursday, Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, and Reps. Adam Smith and Pramila Jayapal, all Washington Democrats, called on Homeland Security’s inspector general to investigate Amar’s death, saying, “It’s vital that we understand what happened and what improvements must be made to address safety and health risks that could otherwise lead to similar tragic incidents in the future.”

Fleeing Russia

Amar arrived at the San Ysidro border checkpoint in California on Dec. 2. He was jailed at the Northwest Detention Center, a private facility run by Geo Group, which according to its website manages 70 prisons and detention facilities nationwide.

In interviews before his death, he said he feared for his life in Russia because skinheads had beaten him and he’d been jailed for calling for independence for the Buryatia republic, the remote region in Siberia where he was from.

“I would prefer to die on this soil than go back to Russia,” Amar said, according to a report in Crosscut, an online news outlet.

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An immigration judge denied Amar’s asylum claim on Aug. 7 and ordered him deported. ICE declined to say why he remained in jail.

Unlike criminal cases, immigration cases are not public record. More detailed information about Amar’s asylum hearing could not be found.

Amar launched his hunger strike in late August, growing dizzy and weak and in danger of “imminent death,” according to a federal court petition ICE filed to obtain permission to forcibly hydrate him to keep him alive. As the days passed, the filing states, Amar grew dizzy and weak and spent most of his time in bed.

U.S. District Judge Benjamin H. Settle allowed the agency to give Amar intravenous fluids against his will, using soft restraints if necessary. ICE officials said Amar resumed eating fruit and shakes on Sept. 19.

On Oct. 1, he appealed his deportation order, but he was too late. The Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed the appeal because it was filed after the 30-day deadline. Amar would have had to submit the appeal by Sept. 6, the same day ICE filed the court petition saying he was in danger of “imminent death.”

He was scheduled for deportation this month.

The day after his appeal was dismissed, Amar wrote a note in Russian to a lawyer who had visited him and said jailers found a rope under his bed, court records show. He said they took away his clothes and placed him alone in a cell.

Federal documents reviewed by The Post show the suicide watch lasted less than two days.

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ICE said Amar was in “voluntary protective custody,” apart from other detainees, when he hanged himself more than two weeks later. Officials would not say why he was taken off suicide watch. The Geo Group referred questions to ICE, and the Russian Embassy declined to comment.

Some advocates announced Amar’s death prematurely. He was declared brain dead at St. Joseph Medical Center on Nov. 18 and taken off life support Saturday. The cause of death was asphyxiation by hanging, the medical examiner’s office said.

Other cases

The case is the latest to draw concern from advocates and watchdogs about detainee care. After a 32-year-old man hanged himself last year at Adelanto Detention Facility in California, Homeland Security inspectors found “nooses” dangling from air vents during an unannounced inspection. The facility, also run by Geo Group, had at least seven suicide attempts from December 2016 to October 2017.

In Florida, an ICE report found that a 37-year-old man killed himself last year after immigration agents left him unshackled and unsupervised at a hospital.

And three men died over the past two years at Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, including two suicides. Efrain De LaRosa apparently hanged himself in July, also after being removed from suicide watch, according to documents reviewed by The Post.

Prison health experts said the government should order an independent investigation of Amar’s death and urged ICE to increase mental-health services as it expands detention for immigrants, who often don’t speak English or have lawyers to represent them.

“If nothing else, the facilities are expected to keep people alive,” said Robert L. Trestman, a Virginia Tech psychiatry professor who used to supervise health care in Connecticut’s prisons and jails. “Locking people up increases the risk of suicide . . . There should be an ongoing review of how care is being managed.”

Julie Tate in Washington, D.C., and Rodika Tollefson in Tacoma, Wash., contributed to this report.