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Dying to get here; dying before being thrown out

June 02, 2008 - Posted by Douglas Rivlin

Lots of dead immigrants in the news this week.  From Arizona, we are reminded by the Arizona Republic’s editorial board that the season of migrants dying in the desert is fully upon us.  Since the beginning of the fiscal year six-months ago, 61 immigrants are known to have perished attempting to cross the desert in the Tucson border sector.

Years ago, The Republic editorial page began writing about summer death counts in the hope of shaming Congress into reforming immigration policies that contribute to those deaths. Washington wasn’t paying much attention.

In recent years, the issue of illegal immigration reached hot-button status. Attention jumped right over those dead bodies. It leaped past the human dimension. Instead of being seen as people who are caught in a broken system, migrants are now portrayed as villains who are unworthy of sympathy.

That’s where Arizona is today. Anger has the upper hand. Rage is louder than reason.

But Arizona risks its humanity if it can’t refocus on what immigration policies are doing to real people.



Sons and daughters.

– “Our Lethal Policies,” Arizona Republic editorial, June 2, 2008

In recent months, news of another migrant dying to get in here has been met with ho-hum indifference, or worse, out right glee from some in Arizona.  Responding to a Tucson Citizen story on a body discovered in the desert last summer, commenter “Chip B.” offered this cheerful response:

Better dead in the desert than here in our cities spreading their vermin, raping our women and consuming health care. – A comment on the story, “Remains found in desert may be illegal migrant,” Tucson Citizen, July 13, 2007.

Chip’s likeminded brother “roy w.” had a similar response to a story last summer on a proposed increase in border patrol and National Guard resources in the Tucson border sector:

Spend the money on 100 ex-Marine snipers with long rifles and scopes, turn 10 cabezas into red mush; the word goes out and people stop coming.

Savvy? Get these people out of this country before the American people start shooting them! — A comment on the story, “New bill calls for adding 14,000 border agents,” Tucson Citizen, August 3, 2007

And later the same month, “roy w.”’s death threats became a bit more specific:

God help the Pima County politicians, and businessmen, who brought this plague upon us, in the name of greed, profit and “humanitarianism”. We will hang them from lamp posts, and stick their severed heads on the Tucson City Walls. — A comment on “Border Patrol rescues 5, including 4-year-old girl,” Associated Press, August 29, 2007.

Lou Dobbs and Rep. Tom Tancredo must be proud of the rhetorical space they have opened in the public square for such thinking…if you can call it that.

But immigrants are not merely dying to get here because of our out-of-date and overly restrictive legal immigration system; they are dying in federal custody as well.  The stories about immigrants dying in detention first uncovered by the Washington Post, New York Times, and CBS News are now being echoed across the nation.  Veteran immigration reporter Sandra Hernandez of L.A.’s legal-focused newspaper The Daily Journal, wrote a good summation of the health care for immigrants in detention issue for this Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.

More than 70 immigrant detainees have died in custody since 2004, at least 13 of them in California, more than in any other state, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The reason may shock you. Unlike federal and state prisons, immigrant detention centers, many of which are run by private contractors, are not legally mandated to abide by any healthcare standards when it comes to treating sick immigrants. Civil and immigrant rights groups have filed suit in New York to force federal officials to issue such rules, but the Department of Homeland Security, which has jurisdiction in the matter, has yet to produce them. In the absence of legally binding standards, detained immigrants…have no legal way to complain about the lax healthcare they receive at the facilities where they are held. They cannot appeal the denial of care or sue in federal court to obtain it. – “A lethal limbo for migrants,” Los Angeles Times, June 1, 2008.

Michael Martinez, national correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, also wrote Sunday about immigrants dying in detention.

Francisco Castaneda had been in a federal immigrant detention center because he was an illegal immigrant with a drug conviction. During his 10-month stay, his signs of cancer went untreated until the facility made him a free, but sick, man. He died a year later.

“If they do a crime, they should do their time, but take care of them,” said a tearful Yanira Castaneda, 35, whose family in the Los Angeles area is continuing her brother’s lawsuit against the government. “I think my brother could have been saved.” – “More immigrant detentions, more deaths,” Chicago Tribune, June 1, 2008.

So far, the response from the Department of Homeland Security has been unapologetic.  On Wednesday, June 4 at 2:00 p.m., Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law, will hold a hearing on “Problems with Immigration Detainee Medical Care.”  We may learn more, and we may be further sickened by what we hear.  What we are not likely to hear from the Department or its leaders is an apology or a clear sense of accountability.

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