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US Immigration Detainees Lack Health Care

A recent U.S. government report says detainees at American immigration detention centers are not receiving adequate medical care. Three human rights groups held a briefing on Capitol Hill last week to draw attention to the problem. VOA's Deborah Block has more.

The groups say there are no uniform standards to ensure that immigration detainees receive humane treatment including sufficient medical care. They say people are suffering and a few have even died because of delays in getting medical treatment.

One women told of how her sister died while in custody after not getting treatment for life-threatening medical problems. June Everett said her sister once had a drug problem, but was a legal permanent U.S. resident who was arrested on her return from her native Barbados. "Sandra (Kenley) died because the American system failed her. A system we believed in. A system that needs fixing now, before more lives are lost unnecessarily."

The U.S. government General Accounting Office issued the report about immigrant detainee facilities. That report to Congress says that some detainee facilities are overcrowded and had deficient medical care, ranging from a lack of timely medical screenings to first aid kits.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials deny claims of medical mistreatment. Spokesperson Jamie Zuieback says, "The medical care that most people experience in our facilities is better, frankly, than in most cases than the care they have (usually get). This particular population typically has very little or no preventive care, little or no on-going medical care. When they come to our facilities they receive a health screening within 24 hours of arriving and any medical need they have is taken care of on an on-going basis."

Michele Garnett McKenzie is with the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights. She says all too often medical problems of the detainees are ignored. She says contributing to the problem is the huge number of detainees in a mix of federal centers, private prisons and local jails, and the fact they sometimes are housed with prisoners convicted of crimes. "There's about 300,000 people every year in detention. It's a system that's grown rapidly. Ten years ago we had maybe 20,000 people annually in detention. It's just expanded at a tremendous rate due to immigration law changes in the United States."

Tom Jawetz, an immigration detention lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), describes the overcrowding he saw at one facility.

"There were detainees who were literally sleeping on top of each other in the holding cells and also in the cells themselves. As a result there was increased tension and increased risk of medical and mental health disturbances."

Dr. Allen Keller works on immigrant health issues at New York University. He says many facilities do not meet the medical needs of people who may be in custody for long periods. He also says that since only the federal government has the authority to approve surgeries and certain medical tests for detainees, treatment may be delayed and could have dire consequences. "We need to ensure that there is timely access to appropriate care, and that also includes empowering the care providers locally, so they can provide the care that they believe is needed and warranted, and that there should not be bureaucratic delays for weeks or months or potentially even longer."

He says independent oversight and stronger medical regulations are needed at detainee facilities to ensure people are held in safe conditions.