National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America

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Court Closes Door for Lawsuits to Hold Officials Accountable

May 19, 2010 - Posted by Lena Graber


On May 3, 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that government doctors are immune from personal liability for inadequate medical care of immigration detainees.  The bereaved family of deceased immigration detainee Francisco Castaneda can only win limited remedies by filing suit against the government itself, where no jury trial or punitive damages are available, even for egregious conduct.

Francisco’s case rests among the many horror stories of medical care for immigrant detainees.  Despite advanced penile cancer, he was held in detention without treatment for 10 months before receiving a biopsy.  He was abruptly released before the results came in, because the government did not want to pay for treatment.  Upon release from ICE custody, Francisco went to the emergency room, where his penis was amputated, but the cancer had spread and he died a year later, at age 36.

Under the Obama administration, DHS has promised an overhaul of immigration detention, but Francisco Castaneda’s case reminds us that promised reforms come too late for many.  Despite months and months of discussions, very little has changed for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants shunted through the system.  A pervasive attitude that immigrant detainees who complain are just “acting out” or “faking it” has contributed to many detainees not receiving the care they desperately need.  Since 2003, there have been over 100 deaths in ICE custody.  Detainees with physical or mental illness are often segregated, further exacerbating their condition.

Despite continued pressure from advocates that detention should be a measure of last resort, not a default decision, ICE continues to plan new and larger detention centers to hold more people.  Immigrants are held in jails despite being innocent of committing any crimes, face persistent obstacles to receiving adequate medical care in detention, are separated from family and loved ones, and are transported hundreds of miles, usually in shackles, to be held in isolated facilities while awaiting their fate. Meanwhile intended reforms of the detention system drag on with painfully small incremental changes. 

Francisco Castaneda’s case once again shows us exactly what is at stake when detention standards are not only inadequate but unenforceable, and when there is broad immunity enjoyed by the persons responsible for the treatment of immigrants in their charge.  With minimal accountability for how they treat people in their own custody, DHS continually fails to provide dignified or tolerable treatment of immigrant detainees. 

Photo from America's Voice.

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