This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
Documented cases of neglect and abuse at the country’s network of federal immigration detention centers led the Obama administration to announce an overhaul of the system last year.
New evidence suggests that reforms will be for naught if the system itself remains shrouded in secrecy.
Media organizations and civil-rights groups fought for years to expose the deaths of immigrants in detention centers. In doing so, they uncovered examples of grossly inadequate medical care.
A 2008 Washington Post investigation tracked 83 immigration detainee deaths and concluded that 30 of them – including one at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma – might have been caused by the actions, or inaction, of medical staff.
Now The New York Times has dug up government documents that show how immigration officials worked to cover up evidence of mistreatment and thwart outside scrutiny.
In some cases, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have outright lied. The most egregious case was in 2007, when an ICE spokesman told The Times that he needed a full name and alien registration number before he could obtain information about a New Jersey detainee.
Records show that spokesman had already filed a report that warned managers of the reporter’s interest and shared information about the detainee, a Guinean man who had suffered a skull fracture behind bars.
The man eventually received emergency brain surgery after being left in an isolation cell without treatment for more than 13 hours. While he lay in a coma following the surgery, agency managers conferred about how to avoid paying for his care and to deter “increased scrutiny and/or media exposure.”
They considered flying the dying man to Guinea or renewing his canceled work permit to tap into Medicaid or disability benefits. In the end, he died before the agency could get rid of him.
But death didn’t stop the conniving. The next day, the director of the Newark field office recommended the agency pay to send the body to Guinea for burial so that his widow wouldn’t show up in the United States and attract media coverage.
Some of the officials who participated in the whitewashing are still working at the agency. In fact, one of them – Nina Dozoretz – was just hired by the Obama administration to lead its overhaul of detainee health care.
More recent cases show that the culture of secrecy continues, according to The New York Times. As late as August, when a reporter for The Arizona Republic asked the agency about nine deaths at an Arizona detention center, a spokesman told him the records were not available.
The administration’s proposed reforms won’t get at the problem since they rely on an agency – one that has already proved itself evasive – to police itself. A system that detains more than 32,000 men and women on any given day, holding some for years, needs outside oversight.
Enforcing the country’s immigration laws and treating suspected illegal immigrants humanely are not mutually exclusive.