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US Immigration Officials Announce 10 Previously Unreported Deaths of Detainees

U.S. immigration officials say they have discovered the records of 10 previously unreported deaths of immigrants detained in U.S. custody since 2003. Eight of the dead were Cuban nationals, one was from Ecuador and one from Mexico. The American Civil Liberties Union says deficient medical care is believed to be a leading cause of death among immigrant detainees.

The 10 newly-discovered deaths bring the total number of immigrants who have died in U.S. immigration detention to 104 since October 2003. One additional detainee, Huluf Guangule Negusse, a 24-year-old Ethiopian, died on Friday in a Florida prison from the effects of a suicide attempt earlier this month. His death has not yet been added to the official roster.

The U.S. government relies on a patchwork of county jails, federal detention centers and for-profit prisons to hold some 400,000 illegal immigrants a year while it tries to deport them.

Gillian Brigham, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, known as ICE, said the deaths did not show up earlier this year when the agency tried to conduct a comprehensive search of immigrants who died while in custody. The agency says it will conduct a review to ensure the integrity of its record on detainee deaths.

The American Civil Liberties Union had filed a Freedom of Information lawsuit seeking previously unreleased documents related to the deaths of immigration detainees in U.S. custody. The ACLU says deficient medical care is believed to be a leading cause of death among immigration detainees.

David Shapiro is a staff attorney with the ACLU's National Prison Project. He criticized the U.S. immigration system for its lack of transparency and accountability. Shapiro says the ACLU is calling on the Obama administration to put enforceable standards in place so that detainees receive necessary medical services before it is too late.

"What these deaths illustrate in many instances, is that without that sort of enforceable standard in place, errors are going to continue to occur, and in some cases, fatal errors," said Shapiro.

He cited one case in which an immigration detainee was stricken with penile cancer while in U.S. custody, and said medical care came too late to save him.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced plans for a major overhaul of the U.S. immigration system. ICE spokeswoman Gillian Brigham told VOA that detention reform is focused on better serving the needs of detainees, many of whom are held for administrative violations, for example of staying in the country once their visa expires.

She says these violators should be differentiated from those who committed felonies. Details are still sketchy on the proposed reform. But ICE Chief John Morton said he would increase oversight of the facilities used to hold immigration detainees.