Katie Shepherd

While Washington debates how to handle the humanitarian crisis at our southern border, the negative consequences of our harsh immigration detention policies are being keenly felt in Colorado.

The death of Kamyar Samimi, a longtime permanent resident from Iran who died in an Aurora, Colorado detention center, is a cautionary tale. Samimi, who lived in the United States since 1976, died in December 2017 just two weeks after being transferred to the detention center run by GEO Group, the country’s largest for-profit private prison company. The government’s own review of his death revealed major deficiencies in his medical care in detention. Yet, several months before the official death review became public, the Aurora facility expanded by over 400 additional beds in January 2019.

There is a narrative of negligence and inadequate medical and mental health care woven through the tragic stories of too many who have suffered or perished in ICE custody over the past several months.

I’ve worked to bring problematic cases like these to the attention of government watchdog groups in the hope of some meaningful, systemic changes. In fact, June 4 marked one year since my organization, the American Immigration Council, along with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, submitted a civil rights complaint on behalf of people locked up in Aurora. In the face of ongoing medical and mental health care problems and a growing detention population, we recently submitted new cases to the government to demonstrate how the problems persist and in fact, have worsened, in light of the facility’s expansion.

Every week, I hear from lawyers and advocates around the country about the challenges their detained clients face while locked up behind bars as they fight their immigration cases. In nearly every case, access to proper medical care is their top concern given the impact it has on their client’s well-being and ability to fight for their case.

The situation in the Aurora facility is no exception. Over the past year, stories have surfaced from detained immigrants and their attorneys, citing numerous examples of the government’s failure to provide specialized medical care for urgent needs, the inability to obtain copies of medical records, appointments with mental health counselors to address crippling psychological distress that never materialize, and more.

The accounts shared in our recent filing are heart-wrenching: They include “Omar” (a pseudonym used to protect his identity), a 71-year-old man from Mexico confined to a wheelchair and suffering from Parkinsons, a traumatic brain injury, chronic kidney disease, a history of heart attacks, dementia, depression, and PTSD. He reports that multiple requests for medical attention from him and his attorney have been ignored. They also include “Isabel,” a transgender woman housed in the men’s dorm at Aurora who has been denied her hormone medication since arriving at the facility in January. In addition to complications from the lack of medication, “Isabel” has been subjected to repeated verbal and sexual harassment by men locked up in her dorm in addition to guards.

These and other cases described in the complaint highlight a systemic failure on the part of the government to ensure that immigrants in their custody are cared for humanely and responsibly. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security continues to request additional funding to lock more immigrants up. Recent accounts suggest over 52,000 immigrants are currently being held in detention — an unprecedented number. With those additional beds comes the risk of more people suffering from poor medical and mental health care.

ICE has the power to release most of the people in its custody—including those in the Aurora facility—on a grant of parole or an alternative to detention while they complete their hearings. Yet, the government is choosing to hold as many possible.

The result is that thousands of people are locked up for months or even years as their cases wind their way through the courts. Meanwhile, private prison companies — such as GEO Group, Inc., reap the profits and cut corners to increase their margins. The people behind bars, like Samimi, end up paying the price.

Coloradans must not allow this to happen in their backyard. Just last week, Representative Joe Neguse (D-CO-02) wrote to the House Immigration Subcommittee demanding oversight and a Congressional hearing. The public must join this call on Congress for oversight and a close examination of our costly — and deadly — over reliance on detention. The lives of thousands depend on it.

Katie Shepherd is the National Advocacy Counsel for the Immigration Justice Campaign at the American Immigration Council, where she focuses on legal advocacy and policy related to detained asylum seekers.

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