ICE fast-tracked the release of immigrants ‘on their deathbeds’ so that they wouldn’t die under the agency’s watch, per internal emails obtained by LA Times

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A meal at an ICE detention center
A meal for an ICE detainee at the Adelanto Immigration Detention Center, in Adelanto, California.

  • Internal emails obtained by the Los Angeles Times showed ICE rushing to release deathly ill detainees.
  • In a wrongful death lawsuit, the ACLU claims that ICE has repeatedly served parole papers at hospitals.
  • The ACLU claims that the practice means that the agency is avoiding realistic detainee death numbers.

Over the last few years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have released ill immigrant detainees days before their eventual deaths, according to internal emails newly obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

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The American Civil Liberties Union also filed a sweeping lawsuit in 2021 on behalf of the families of immigrants detained by ICE who claim their relatives had rushed releases due to illness.

The 16,000 documents obtained by the LA Times are part of the outlet's ongoing public records lawsuit against the agency. The outlet says the documents highlight a pattern of the agency skirting responsibility for immigrants in poor health housed in government facilities as well as contracted facilities.

Johana Medina Leon, a transgender immigrant and nurse technician from El Salvador, was initially held in the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico and her health plummeted a month after being detained, according to the LA Times report.

Medina Leon had marked her requests for help as "urgent," per the LA Times.

It took close to six weeks for Medina Leon to get access to medical care to treat what was later revealed as sepsis in an autopsy. When Leon finally had access to a doctor, she was discharged from the facility in less than six hours, emails showed.

According to the LA Times, on May 28, 2019, ICE's field medical coordinator gave the go-ahead to release the sick inmate. 

"If this detainee were to become further seriously ill there is a potential for a poor outcome," the official said in the email obtained by the LA Times. A second official chimed in, per the report, that her "vitals do not look good."

According to the report, Medina Leon was presented with her parole paperwork at the El Paso hospital that she was rushed to, and in the internal investigation into her death, an ICE agent noted that he had never released a detainee at a hospital.

By that evening, she was officially no longer in ICE custody, according to the emails. On June 1, Medina Leon died at the hospital. Management and Training Corporation, the private prison group which operates the Otero facility, told Insider in an email that "MTC follows federal HIPPA patient privacy laws and does not comment on specific medical cases."

"We take the medical care of detainees very seriously," the company added. "We adhere to ICE Performance-Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS) including ensuring detainees have access to appropriate and necessary medical, dental, and mental health care, including emergency services. We further follow PBNDS standards for the prevention, screening, and treatment of infectious diseases."

According to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of Medina Leon and three other detainees, Medina Leon's rushed release was not the first time the agency rushed to release critically ill detainees so as to not inflate their deaths in detention figures.

At the time of Medina Leon's death, ICE said they took detainee health seriously and that her death was "another unfortunate example of an alien who enters the United States with an untreated, un-screened medical condition."

ICE did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment. ICE told the LA Times that the agency "takes very seriously the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care, including those who come into ICE custody with prior medical conditions or who have never before received appropriate medical evaluation or care."

In 2019, the year Leon died outside of ICE care, the agency reported nine deaths.

According to the agency's public data, ICE reported 18 deaths in detention in 2020, and five the following year. In 2022, the agency claims that there have been no deaths in their facilities while factoring in the thousands of detainees under their watch and with consistent COVID-19 outbreaks in facilities.

The ACLU's lawsuit is seeking records about detainees in poor health who the ACLU believes may have had rushed releases, and is interrogating why the agency is "choosing to release people from custody who are on their deathbeds while they're hospitalized," ACLU attorney Eunice Cho told LA Times.

The ACLU did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.

The class-action suit claimed that Martin Vargas Arellano, a 55-year-old booked in Adelanto, California, in 2020, alerted officials about his "diabetes, hypertension, gout, and hepatitis C," asking for a release because he was immunocompromised and worried about COVID-19.

According to the lawsuit, he contracted COVID-19 in March 2021 and had a stroke at the detention facility. He was then transferred to a local hospital, still in ICE custody. 

Three days before he died in the hospital, ICE served him his release papers. Arellano was also not counted in ICE's deaths in detention for the year and the agency did not notify his family or attorney of his death, according to LA Times. 

His family and attorney learned of his death after reaching out to the coroner's office and filing a missing person's report.

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