The Obama administration has promised to overhaul immigration detention. But a scathing report in the New York Times last weekend reveals that federal officials used their role as overseers to prevent media from reporting deaths and abuses inside the nation’s immigration prisons. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, now admits 107 immigrants died in ICE custody since October 2003, but for years the deaths went uncounted in the public record.
"What Really Happened to Boubacar Bah", video provided by the New York Times. See Nina Bernstein’s article, Officials Hid Truth of Immigrant Deaths in Jail
Sunita Patel, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Edwidge Danticat, Haitian American novelist. Her books include Brother, I’m Dying. It tells the story of her uncle dying in DHS custody.
AMY GOODMAN: Right now we’re going to turn back to what we touched on earlier, and it’s the issue of immigration. And we want to turn back to Edwidge to tell us the story of her uncle. You may wonder why we’re talking about this today, but Haiti has been the epicenter of natural and political crises, and particularly affected by its powerful neighbor to the north, the United States. Edwidge, what happened to your uncle over five years ago?
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Before that, Amy, I would just like to—you know, on the issue of aid, I feel that it’s—you know, there will be corruption and so forth, but I don’t want to discourage people who would like to give. There are some wonderful organizations that are already working within Haiti, organizations like Dr. Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health and the Lambi Fund and Doctors Without Borders. So I don’t want, sort of in the more political talk, to discourage people from giving, because in whatever—or to try to help in whatever way they can, because it’s going to be extraordinarily needed.
On—that being said, on the—my uncle’s story, it’s very ironic. I’ve been thinking about my uncle throughout this whole issue, because I’m not even sure now that the building where he lived and where he did all of his work is still standing. He was—he lived in Bel Air, which, as one of the—someone had said, is just shattered and broken right now, for more than fifty years, and in 2004, because of a threat by gangs there, had to leave. And he had been coming to the United States for about thirty years, on and off, visiting. And after this incident at his house with a confrontation with a gang, he was—he came to Miami, where—here where I live, and he requested temporary—he called temporary asylum. He was arrested and brought to jail at the Krome Detention Center. He was eighty-one years old, a cancer survivor who spoke with a voice box. And his medications were taken away, and he died a few days later in the custody of the immigration service.
AMY GOODMAN: He died at the Krome Detention Center, his medication taken away.
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Oh, he died at—mm-hmm, well, he died in the hospital. He was taken finally to Jackson Memorial Hospital, after he was accused of faking his illness. When finally it seemed like—it seemed like he was near death, they took him to the hospital.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Edwidge Danticat, also you write about this in your book Brother, I’m Dying, the difficulty of getting information and just dealing with immigration bureaucracy, trying to get information about your uncle, and also what happened after his death. They gave you the body with no—they performed an autopsy and gave you very little information of what actually happened. Can you talk about that?
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, they basically—while he was in the hospital, he was attached to, chained to a bed, shackled to a bed, in the prison ward of the hospital. We were not allowed to see him there. And even when he died, we tried to confirm that he had died. And the night that he died, someone had called me to say that, and I called the immigration—I called the hospital, and they said, “No, you have to call to the immigration service.” And we weren’t told officially that he died until the following morning. And then we were basically—they performed an autopsy and gave—said that he died of chronic pancreatitis. And he had never had pancreatitis, much less chronic. And we were just given the corpse and told “Good luck.”
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Edwidge, we’re going to talk more about the overall issue of immigration in this country and what is happening in our immigration detention jails. I shouldn’t say “ours,” because so many of them are private. We want to thank Kim Ives for being with us, of Haiti Liberté, joining us here in New York. Edwidge Danticat is staying with us to the end of the show, the Haitian American novelist whose books include Breath, Eyes, Memory, Krik? Krak!, Brother, I’m Dying about her uncle who died in custody here in the United States as he appealed for asylum and for the drugs that he was used to taking.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The Obama administration has promised to overhaul immigration detention. But a scathing report in the New York Times last weekend reveals that federal officials used their role as overseers to prevent media from reporting deaths and abuses inside the nation’s immigration prisons. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, now admits 107 immigrants’ deaths in ICE custody since October 2003, but for years the deaths went uncounted in the public record.
Documents obtained by the ACLU and the New York Times reveal that 107 deaths generated investigative reports as well as confidential memos showing officials trying to stymie investigations and deflect public scrutiny. The Times investigations also found that some Bush administration officials who played a role in the cover-up remain in top posts in the current administration.
AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times investigation sheds light on several cases, including that of Nery Romero, a twenty-two-year-old Salvadoran who committed suicide in the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey in 2007 after failing to be treated for pain.
It also follows the story of a fifty-two-year-old tailor from the West African nation of Guinea. In 2007, Boubacar Bah died in immigration custody under mysterious circumstances. This video, provided by the New York Times, is called “What Really Happened to Boubacar Bah?”
BOUBACAR BAH: [translated] Let me take your picture, so it will be part of the video.
NARRATOR: These are the home movies of Boubacar Bah taken in the spring of 2006. He visited the family he supported in his native Guinea by working in the United States.
BOUBACAR BAH: [translated] Help! They are killing me! Help! They are killing me!
NARRATOR: Shot less than a year later, this video shows detention center guards and medical staff restraining Bah after an unexplained traumatic brain injury that eventually killed him. The video was shot by detention center staff, a policy when force is used on a detainee.
It was obtained after lengthy Freedom of Information Act requests by the ACLU and the New York Times, along with thousands of pages of government documents related to the medical care of the 107 immigrants known to have died in ICE custody since the fall of 2003. The documents show that, in many cases over the years, officials from ICE, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, used their oversight to cover up evidence of substandard care and even abuse will deflecting media scrutiny.
One ICE spokesman warned to managers:
ICE SPOKESMAN: These are quite horrible medical stories. I think we’ll need to have a pretty strong response to keep this from becoming a very damaging national story.
NARRATOR: The Times first asked the government about Boubacar Bah back in 2007. A government spokesman claimed that he could not check out the case because the reporter did not have the man’s full name and alien registration number. But records now show the spokesman did know about the case, warning officials that he had been contacted by New York Times journalist Nina Bernstein. And they began to discuss sending Bah back to Africa to keep the story quiet.
SADIO DIALLO: We are the friend, the best friend. He is a very, very, very good person. Everybody like Boubacar.
NARRATOR: Sadio Diallo was Boubacar Bah’s roommate in this apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn. They both regularly worked ten-hour days, six days a week, as tailors to earn money for their families back home.
SADIO DIALLO: We have problem in our country, you know? In Guinea, nothing good. That’s why we come here.
NARRATOR: Bah came to the United States in 1998 on a tourist visa, but stayed on illegally, working in New York for eight years. He longed to be able to visit his family back in West Africa and then be able to return legally to New York. So when he heard about a special green card program that might allow that, he applied.
KADIDIATOU BAH: And he applied for the permission. He applied, and then they sent him the answer, saying that, yeah, he can go back home.
NARRATOR: Bah received permission from immigration authorities to travel outside the United States while his case was pending, so he left for Africa, recording his trip on video. For the first time in many years, he saw his two sons, his two wives and his elderly mother.
KADIDIATOU BAH: Coming back, he stayed home for like three months. Coming back here, he was arrested. And then hey told him, you know, “Your case was denied.”
NARRATOR: The private company Bah had relied on to apply for the green card program had given him bad advice. Immigration authorities arrested him at Kennedy Airport because they had rejected his green card application while he was away in Africa, revoking his permission to re-enter the US. He could either turn around and go back to Guinea or fight his case from the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey, run by Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company.
KADIDIATOU BAH: We put the money together. We hired a lawyer. So, back and forth, you know, I guess he was denied.
NARRATOR: Bah languished in detention for nine months. Sadio Diallo spoke to Bah regularly. But one day he was surprised by a call from a detainee in Bah’s dorm whom he had never met.
SADIO DIALLO: One guy over in the detention center, he called me. He said, “You know what happened in Boubacar?” I said, “No, no. What happened to him?”
NARRATOR: Bah was in the hospital with a skull fracture and multiple brain hemorrhages. He had been injured four days earlier, and no one from immigration had contacted Bah’s lawyer, his friends or his family.
KADIDIATOU BAH: They never think it’s important to call us. They never did. They never make any move. They never make any move to call us and let us know the situation.
NARRATOR: Just how Bah was injured is still unclear. But confidential reports by detention center staff, obtained later by the New York Times, say that he passed out in the bathroom of his dorm and was found unconscious on the floor. Incident reports note that when Bah was brought to the medical unit, which was run by ICE and the Public Health Service, he became agitated and uncooperative, grabbing at the staff.
INCIDENT REPORT: The subject was placed on the floor, and restraints were applied with no further incident.
NARRATOR: Medical personnel failed to recognize his behavior as textbook signs of intercranial bleeding. Instead, Bah was shackled. With the approval of the physician’s assistant on call, a guard made the following report.
GUARD REPORT: After scream and moan, the above-named detainee began to regurgitate on the floor in medical.
NARRATOR: Because he was not following orders, the detention center staff put Bah in solitary confinement and filmed him. At least twice, guards requested that medical check on Bah. But no one came. There is no available footage of what happened in the hours after this video was taken, but the staff noted regular updates on Bah’s deteriorating condition.
Almost ten hours after Bah’s fall:
STAFF NOTE: I attempted to wake him up to eat chow with no response.
NARRATOR: Then eleven hours:
STAFF NOTE: He began to breathe heavily and started foaming slightly at the mouth.
NARRATOR: And twelve-and-a-half hours later:
STAFF NOTE: At 2030, the foaming seems to have stopped, and his breathing is steady. He is still unresponsive. Medical has not visited the detainee since I called the first time.
NARRATOR: Almost fifteen hours after Bah’s fall, the detention center staff finally called an ambulance. Bah was rushed into emergency brain surgery. Still Bah’s family was not notified. The new records now show that the day after Bah’s brain surgery, the warden at the Elizabeth Detention Center reported the incident to the jail company, including the fact that medical personnel did not respond to request to visit detainee until it was too late. When informed, one ICE official sent a Blackberry message to a colleague:
ICE OFFICIAL: Please review and follow up on allegations of Public Health Service staff slow to respond.
NARRATOR: Five days after Bah’s head injury, officials finally called the family and told them he was at University Hospital in Newark.
BAH’S COUSIN: Well, when we were there, we were shocked, because he was laying down over there, like with a surgery on his head. They’re talking about he got a brain damage.
NARRATOR: While Bah lay comatose, an ICE spokesman was still denying knowledge of his case.
Soon after, ten top ICE managers were on a conference call trying to figure out how to get the unconscious man out of their custody. The hospital wanted to transfer Bah to a nursing home for long-term care. That would cost ICE over $122,000 a year. Officials had another worry, too: ICE must be prepared for “increased scrutiny and/or media exposure.”
One option they explored at length was deporting the comatose man back to his native Guinea. But after a staffer warned that the country was “near collapse” and nursing homes “do not exist,” that plan was scrapped.
Another strategy was to grant Bah the legal immigration status he had been denied before, in hopes of making him eligible for Medicaid or Social Security disability benefits to pay for his care.
After the hospital actually moved Bah to a nursing home, immigration authorities settled on a third course: Bah’s cousins in New York would be responsible for paying his medical bills, even though they had already protested they couldn’t afford it. But days before the planned release, Bah’s cousins received a call.
BAH’S COUSIN: They called us. They say we have to come to the hospital. And on our way over there, they call us again and say that he died.
NARRATOR: The day after Bah’s death, one immigration official emailed another, recommending the unusual step of funding the transfer of Bah’s remains back to Guinea for burial. One reason, he cited, was to avoid the media coverage that could result if Bah’s surviving spouse showed up in the United States for a funeral.
ICE OFFICIAL: I also don’t want to stir up any media interest where none is warranted.
NARRATOR: When the Times obtained a list of immigrant detainees who had died in ICE custody, Bah’s name was on it. A year after he died, he was on the front page. Only days before, an internal ICE review of his case had concluded:
ICE REVIEW: No action warranted: ICE employees not at fault.
NARRATOR: Back in Guinea, Bah’s first wife remarried, then died in childbirth, leaving his two teenage sons orphaned. His second wife can barely pay for milk for his toddler.
BAH’S COUSIN: He just came to this country to have a better life, you understand? And to work hard to take care his family. He never do anything that hurt somebody, so I don’t understand how they treat him like that. And that’s not fair, and I think that’s not fair at all.
NARRATOR: The Obama administration has since vowed to overhaul immigration detention. A new ICE spokesman recently said the newly disclosed records represent the past and that the agency’s new leaders are committed to transparency and greater oversight. But the official recently named to fix detainee healthcare, Nina Dozoretz, was one of the managers involved in the confidential discussions over Boubacar Bah’s fate.
AMY GOODMAN: That video courtesy of the New York Times.
For more on the investigation and what the documents tell us about immigration detention in this country, a system that over 330,000 people pass through each year—again, the Times exposé of ICE admitting that 107 people have died in custody over the last six years—we continue to be joined by Haitian American novelist Edwidge Danticat in Miami. In November, again, Edwidge’s eighty-one-year-old uncle, Reverend Joseph Danticat, died in custody of immigration officials. And we’re joined here in New York by Sunita Patel, who is a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, working on the treatment of immigrant prisoners. Astounding story of Boubacar Bah, not to mention what has happened with others.
Tell us more. You’ve spent a good deal of time in these private detention facilities in New Jersey.
SUNITA PATEL: So, well, first of all, thank you so much, Amy, for having me on the show. It’s a pleasure to be here.
And I want to point out that what this indicates is the end result of a very swollen system of thousands of people in immigration detention, where there is absolutely no systemic monitoring or oversight of the conditions in these facilities. We know that in 2009 there was approximately 400,000 people that went through the immigration detention system and that they’re held in a network of not only private facilities, but also county jails. There are very few that are run and operated by the federal government themselves. And in either system, you have lots of gaps in who monitors and controls and takes care of the immigrants bring and a real problem with human rights abuses that are happening across the board.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And this issue of oversight, I mean, not only are government officials mistreating immigrant detainees, but they’re involved in covering up what happens to them. Talk about that.
SUNITA PATEL: That’s right. So what this video shows is this shocking truth that the government doesn’t have an interest in making sure the public knows what’s happening to people that they are holding in their own custody. This is a real problem, because the administration has promised for accountability and greater transparency. And when you think of oversight of a system where people are locked up, where their liberty is taken away, and for immigrants in detention, they don’t have access to counsel, many don’t ever even see a judge. So, in these situations, you really need a very thorough system where federal monitors are going in, where there’s a local level of oversight, in order to prevent these types of things from happening.
AMY GOODMAN: And who owns these prisons?
SUNITA PATEL: Many private corporations, like the Corrections Corporation of America, Cornell corporations, but the vast majority of the 400 facilities that people are kept in are run and operated by county governments.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And is there anything being done right now in Congress in terms of oversight protection for these people?
SUNITA PATEL: There are several bills that have been introduced by Menendez and also the Roybal-Allard bill, which would increase the amount of oversight. They specifically have provisions to create ombudspersons to go and investigate problems or to create federal office of detention oversight. And these bills would also create enforceable detention standards, which is very important in order to make sure that we can hold people accountable.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, on this day of disaster in Haiti, we are going to end with Edwidge Danticat, the Haitian American novelist. Her great novels, Krik? Krak!, Brother, I’m Dying, about her uncle’s own ordeal. He ended up dying in US immigration detention in a hospital in Miami. We only have a little time, Edwidge, but your thoughts as you listen to this story?
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, in a way, the two are related. You know, people are escaping things like this horrible day today, and only to come here to face these horrible circumstances. So they are inevitably connected. So I want to just offer my deepest condolences and my solidarity with the people of Haiti and people and their family members who are awaiting word, but also to these families who are awaiting word of their loved ones in detention. And that’s something that I hope will stop. I hoped my uncle would be the last person to die that way, and unfortunately he was not. But today is such a day of death, and it just seems too many people are dying, both there and here.
AMY GOODMAN: Edwidge Danticat—
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: And when people escape to try to find—mm-hmm?
AMY GOODMAN: We will end on that note, as the program is ending.
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: And I thank you so much for being with us, as well as Sunita Patel.