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'Systemic' problems in immigrant detainee medical care, report charges

FILE PHOTO: A medical exam room at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Detention Facility in Adelanto sits empty on Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. I Maya Sugarman/KPCC

A new report from human rights advocates criticizes the quality of medical care in the nation's immigrant detention centers, saying the system is plagued with inexperienced staff, delayed treatment and other problems.

Human Rights Watch and Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, or CIVIC, issued the report Monday. The groups analyzed government records, including investigations into 18 detainee deaths between 2012 and 2015. Medical records of a dozen additional detainees from facilities around the country and interviews with detainees, attorneys and others, also are cited in the report.

Among the cases cited by the report authors is the April 2015 death of a Salvadoran national first housed at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange, then at a private contract detention center in Adelanto.

According to the report, 44-year-old Raul Ernesto Morales Ramos died from organ failure and showed signs of widespread cancer. The report suggests that his cancer symptoms likely began two years before he died, but went largely unaddressed.

An internal investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement into Morales' death identified deficiencies in his care and found the medical care "did not meet all requirements" set by the agency, according to an internal report provided by ICE.

Grace Meng, senior researcher, U.S. programs, with Human Rights Watch, said substandard care of detainees is a systemic problem. She said nurses in these facilities, for example, are often minimally trained.

"Many of these people are held in facilities where the staffs are not qualified to diagnose or to treat," Meng said. "They are supposed to be referring people to doctors, and yet that doesn't happen." 

Just who provides medical care in immigrant detention facilities varies. Private facilities often rely on medical subcontractors to treat detainees. For example, medical care at the Adelanto facility near Los Angeles is provided by a private company. U.S. immigration officials and The GEO Group, a Florida-based private prison company that operates the facility, switched medical providers in early 2016 after a series of deaths and other problems.

In an emailed statement, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials responded to the report today saying that they are "committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency's custody." The agency pointed out that it spends more than $180 million each year on health care services for immigrant detainees.  

Officials said they would review the report to determine what, if any, changes should be made to address the issues raised by it.