Immigration and Customs Enforcement moved more than 700 women, some of whom have critical medical conditions, out of a Texas detention center in September without giving their lawyers any way of finding them, according to immigrant rights attorneys.
Starting on Sept. 20, the women being held at the Karnes County Residential Center were sent to other centers around the country so that the facility could be used to detain families. More than two weeks later, their lawyers from the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) have no idea where the majority of these women are being held, and they can’t find any updated information in ICE’s online detainee tracking system.
The inability to track these immigrants could have fatal consequences if their health continues to deteriorate, according to Andrea Meza, the director of family detention services at RAICES.
“I’m really fearful that their conditions could worsen,” Meza said. “I don’t want them to be in another ICE press release about death in detention.”
The situation highlights a common problem for migrants in ICE custody: They can be transferred between facilities with little notice and yet their new locations are not promptly updated in the system. If their existing lawyers and family members can’t find them, they may have to go through their cases without legal representation, especially in remote areas where legal counsel is sparse. And those with serious health issues could die if advocates who don’t know where their clients were transferred are unable to fight for their right to medical treatment.
An ICE official told HuffPost that “Comprehensive medical care is provided to all individuals in ICE custody” adding that staffing includes registered nurses, licensed mental health providers, a physician and access to 24-hour emergency care. The official acknowledged that the women at Karnes had been transferred to other facilities, but did not explain why their locations were not showing up in the online system.
HuffPost reported that while at Karnes, some of the immigrants were allegedly being denied lifesaving care, such as cancer and HIV treatment, and that suicidal patients were not receiving psychiatric counseling. One woman with cancer in her uterus said she had not received medical treatment for more than two months. Another immigrant, who is HIV positive, said she was not getting her medication or being evaluated by a doctor, even as her symptoms worsened. A doctor told HuffPost that anyone with a serious physical illness requires constant medical visits to stop their disease from rapidly progressing.
The lack of medical care in immigrant detention facilities is well-established. Seven immigrants have died in ICE detention centers this year, and six minors have died in Border Patrol centers, in many cases because they didn’t receive proper medical help for their illnesses.
The online system that tracks ICE detainees is notoriously faulty. While in most cases ICE is not legally required to inform lawyers when their clients are being transferred, that information is supposed to be accessible via the agency’s online ICE Detainee Locator within roughly 24 hours of a person’s relocation according to Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, who formerly worked as a deputy assistant director for custody programs at ICE.
But according to lawyers who rely on the system to track their clients, the locator is unreliable.
Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, a Texas-based immigration attorney, said the tool only helps her find detainees 50% of the time, in part because names and birthdates are often entered incorrectly, making detainees impossible to search. It can take up to a few weeks for someone who is transferred to a new facility to show up in the system, which means families are often left wondering whether their loved ones have been deported back to life-threatening situations in their home countries, Lincoln-Goldfinch said.
“I think FedEx does a better job of tracking its packages than ICE does of tracking the people it detains,” Lincoln-Goldfinch said.
Other lawyers have complained that the locator doesn’t load properly, or that it will show “no results found” for someone who is still in ICE custody. Meza said the latter is happening for roughly 100 of the women who were recently transferred from Karnes, and that another 660 of them show up in the system as still being detained at the facility even though they have been moved.
Aside from the medical concerns, Meza worries that these women won’t have legal representation if RAICES can’t help them find lawyers near the new detention centers, which may be in remote areas, and share the information they’ve already collected about their cases. With legal assistance, immigrants are five and a half times more likely to not be deported, according to a 2015 study from the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.
There are a record number of immigrants currently being held in detention, which is undoubtedly putting strain on a tracking system that didn’t work well to begin with. But in addition to logistical issues that might exist, immigration advocates say the administration has a record of dehumanizing asylum-seekers and is likely not prioritizing a locator that would help lawyers keep their clients in the U.S.
Before splitting up families last summer under its zero tolerance policy, the government had no system in place to track the whereabouts of the separated parents and children.
“We know the whole for-profit prison system is putting money before people’s humanity,” said Meza. “It’s just a matter of time before we see the next death in ICE custody.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated a statistic on the value of legal counsel. The fact is that immigrants are five and a half times more likely to not be deported if they have legal assistance.