22 immigrants died in ICE detention centers during the past 2 years

The 22 immigrants who died in the nation’s sprawling network of detention centers over the past two years came to the United States from countries as far-flung as Vietnam, and as close as Mexico. Some had been longtime legal residents, arriving as refugees or students. Others were recent asylum seekers. Many were young — half were not yet 45 years old.

Roxana Hernandez was one. Hers was among the most high-profile of the deaths in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custodyduring the Trump administration.

The 33-year-old transgender woman from Honduras arrived at the U.S. border seeking asylum as part of a migrant caravan. She died within two weeks of entering ICE custody. Hernandez’s death, along with the recent deaths of two young children held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, has brought renewed scrutiny to immigrants in the federal government’s custody.

“One death is too many,” said Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen during testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 20, in the wake of the first child’s death.

Nielsen’s agency oversees both CBP, which apprehends unauthorized migrants at the border and holds them for short stints, and ICE, which arrests immigrants in the interior of the country, and operates a large network of longer-term detention centers. The DHS detention centers, said Nielsen, have “some of the highest standards in the world.”

But an NBC News review of dozens of government reports, death reviews and audits of ICE detention centers reveals a system long riddled with problems. Within the last year, the DHS Office of Inspector General has issued three reports finding poor treatment and spotty oversight in ICE facilities.

While the issues predate President Donald Trump, his administration has expanded ICE’s enforcement priorities. Advocates said the rollback of discretion as detention expands puts vulnerable immigrants at risk.

“You’ll see someone who is clearly an asylum seeker who came into custody with a serious medical condition, whether a heart condition or otherwise, and you have to ask, ‘Why is this person in jail?'” said Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “There’s no reason for it.”

Two years into the Trump administration, 22 immigrants have died in ICE detention, according to an NBC News analysis of 188 detainee deaths since 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security was formed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

This remains below the peak of 32 deaths in 2004, the first full calendar year records were kept. Deaths rose and then fell during the Obama administration, from 10 in 2008 to five in 2012, a period in which ICE implemented policies to improve detention conditions and oversight. But deaths then ticked up to 12 in President Obama’s last full year in office, 2016, as the number of detainees grew.

Under Trump, as the immigrant detainee population has surged still higher, the annual number of deaths was 10 in 2017 and 12 in 2018.

ICE has said deaths in detention are “exceedingly rare,” involving a fraction of those detained by the agency.

The tally does not include the recent deaths of two Guatemalan children in CBP custody. Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, and Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, 8, died within weeks of each other in December. Nor does it include the March death of a 20-month old girl, Mariee Juárez, nearly two months after she was held at an ICE family detention center in Texas with her mother. Her mother is now suing the government, alleging neglect.

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Lisa Riordan Seville, Hannah Rappleye and Andrew W. Lehren