Detention Deaths . . . Now with Context!

By Jon Feere and Jon Feere on January 31, 2010

There is no question that we should treat illegal-alien detainees as humanely as possible. Our system should expedite the removal process so that individuals are not detained any longer than is necessary. But while improvements can certainly be made, detention centers serve an important purpose and should not be abandoned, regardless of how loudly the open-border crowd yells.

By failing to put detention problems into context, the amnesty-advocating media has assisted open-border groups in highlighting detention deaths as a means to discredit detention altogether. The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) recently obtained an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spreadsheet which lists the names and cause of death of all detainees who died in ICE custody between October 2003 and the end of 2009. The list includes a total of 107 people. Opponents of immigration detention have called this number "shocking" and argue that ICE is "plagued with a culture of deception and secrecy." They claim ICE is "incompetent" and "conspiring" to hide their "transgressions" and that the entire detention system is "corrupt to its core."

One-sided news articles on immigration detention centers have become so prevalent that in 2008 ICE felt the need to issue a press release titled, "Detainee Health Care: The Rest of the Story." The agency specifically called out the New York Times, the Washington Post, and 60 Minutes for advancing half-truths, failing to present ICE's side of the story, and refusing to print ICE's op-eds and letters to the editor.

In fact, once you get past the hyperbole and one-sided media reports, a little analysis reveals that the suicide and overall death rates in immigration detention centers – statistics symbolic of a failed immigration policy, according to the anti-detention crowd – are considerably lower than the rates found in the U.S. prison system.

Detention Watch Network, an open-border group which favors "reporting and electronic monitoring" as an alternative to detention, notes that the United States detains over 330,000 immigrants each year. Like other open-border groups, Detention Watch Network argues that detainee suicide rates are so high as to justify an end to detention. Yet their arguments don't hold up to even a nominal amount of scrutiny.

During the 6-year, 3-month period represented in the ICE spreadsheet, there were a number of detainee suicides – a total of 15 – and they should be investigated if they haven't already. But without more, it is difficult to blame immigration policy for these deaths.

Using the Detention Watch Network's 330,000 number, approximately 2,062,500 people passed though the detention system during the period represented in the ICE spreadsheet.

A useful comparison is the suicide rate among inmates in the U.S. prison system. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), state prison inmates commit suicide at a rate of 14 per 100,000. (The number is higher in local jails: 47 per 100,000.)

In applying the lower state prison suicide rate to the immigration detention population, one could expect approximately 289 suicides in immigration detention centers during the period studied. When put in context, the 15 suicides which actually occurred over the period is remarkably low. If suicide rates are any indicator of how our legal system treats lawbreakers – a questionable analysis, although one the anti-detention crowd loves to make – one could argue that our legal system treats foreign detainees much better than it does imprisoned U.S. citizens.

In looking at total deaths, the death rate in immigration detention centers is also much lower than it is in state prisons. A recent BJS study looked at total state inmate deaths between 2001 and 2004 and found an annual mortality rate of 250 deaths per 100,000 inmates. Interestingly, this rate was 19 percent lower than the adult mortality rate in the U.S. general population (probably because inmates are younger than the general population).

If this rate were to be found in immigrant detention centers, one could expect a total of over 5,156 deaths during the 6-year, 3-month period represented in the ICE spreadsheet. Instead, as noted earlier, the total number of deaths in immigrant detention centers from October 2003 through December 2009 was 107.

In addition to the remarkably low death rates, the individual cases bring the anti-detention crowd's analysis into question. Is it fair, or even logically sound, for example, to blame U.S. immigration policy for the death of 73-year-old Juan Alonso who succumbed to kidney failure? Is it ICE's fault that 65-year-old criminal alien Wilfredo Hernandez died of coronary artery disease? Can we blame immigration policy for the emphysema death of 51-year-old criminal alien Jorge Lazano-Blanco?

Looking at the entire list of 107 deaths, over half of the population is made up of individuals born in 1960 or earlier (56 total), while individuals born 1950 or earlier accounted for more than a quarter of the deaths (28 total). Old age, smoking habits, and diet may be more to blame than heartless immigration agents.

For the most part, the detention centers are well-run and usually provide better health care than the aliens receive in their homelands. In 2007, the U.S. taxpayer spent $100 million on detainee health care, an amount that is certain to climb. This money goes toward mental health care, cancer treatment, and everything in between. Nevertheless, amnesty advocates decry this as "woefully inadequate." These detention opponents also fail to acknowledge that some detainees have been suffering from ailments their whole lives and that the detention medical center may be one of their first opportunities to see a doctor. In other words, an inadequate health care system in a detainee's homeland may be more to blame for detainee mortality rates than U.S. immigration policy.

It is also important to remember that detainees often hold the keys to the detention center. Oftentimes the alien is free to leave at anytime and return to his home country, but may choose to stay in the centers in order to repeatedly appeal the removal order at the advice of his attorney.

Other times, public safety dictates that an alien be detained. One recent Department of Justice study found that 73 percent of criminal illegal aliens arrested by state and local law enforcement – and then released without being placed in ICE detention – went on to commit further crimes. Shockingly, the study showed that the aliens in the sample had been arrested six times apiece on average. Although the statistic was derived from a small sampling, DoJ investigators noted that "if this data is indicative of the full population of [criminal aliens], the rate at which released criminal aliens are rearrested is extremely high."

Can our immigrant detention system be improved? Of course. There are some incidents and allegations that do raise legitimate concerns about standards and practices. This is why DHS has promised to make some changes to the system. And ICE is always trying to cut detention times; in 2006, detention was cut from an average of 89 days down to 35 days. But the suggestion that an illegal alien amnesty is necessary to improve detention standards – an argument being advanced by AILA – is entirely unsupported by the facts.

Ultimately, if one wants less detention, one should support less immigration, both legal and illegal. Ideally, the United States would have need for few detention centers. Secure borders, a working entry-exit system, more efficiency from ICE, a commitment to workplace enforcement, and an end to illegal-immigration-inducing policies, for example, would go far in this regard. But the ACLU and other open-border groups are their own worst enemies: They're constantly opposing measures that would deter illegal immigration, and the natural result is a greater need for detention.