The Jane Doe Case and the Denial of Health Care to Detained Immigrants

On October 24, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ordered the federal government to refrain from blocking Jane Doe, a pregnant 17-year-old who fled her home country, from accessing her constitutional right to an abortion. This result came after a contentious legal battle, which is part of larger effort by detained immigrants to attain adequate health care. The failure to provide adequate health care often forces refugees to make an impossible “choice” between the constitutional right to adequate health care and the right to seek protection from persecution.

Asylum seekers are often locked away despite having committed no crime, and the Trump Administration is working to expand immigration detention and detain people for the length of their proceedings. However, the health of asylum seekers and other vulnerable immigrants often deteriorates in detention and experts have found that detention itself creates health problems. As Human Rights First reported after a visit to the Berks County Residential Center (one of three family detention centers in the country), children are especially vulnerable, often facing severe psychiatric harm and physical problems as a result of even short-term detention.

The poor health care provided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is well documented. Common problems include substantial delays in accessing care, unqualified or insufficient medical personnel, and refusal of care. People have been given pain medicine or Benadryl for canceruterine fibroids, and other serious conditions. Others report delays in calling 911 or failure to call 911 for emergency medical problems, including chest pain, difficulty breathing, and heart attacks.

At the Rio Grande Valley Staging, Lelis Rodriguez told a licensed vocational nurse that he was on medication for high blood pressure. The nurse documented that Lelis had a headache and elevated blood pressure, symptoms that, when combined, necessitate emergency medical intervention. But the nurse failed to act. It was only hours later, when he collapsed and began to twitch, that the nurse called emergency services. However, he soon fell into a coma and was pronounced brain dead the following day. The independent experts who investigated his death declared that it was “avoidable.”

Refusing proper medical treatment to those in government custody may force asylum seekers to return to danger in their home countries. Brenda Menjivar Guardado, a 21-year-old woman from El Salvador, had her diabetes medicine taken by ICE. She was then told by officers at T. Don Hutto Residential Center (an immigration detention center for women) to return to El Salvador for better medical care when the substitute drugs she was given did not work. Forcing an individual to sacrifice a basic human right to try to attain another is illegal and inhumane.

The Trump Administration’s policies to detain asylum seekers and other vulnerable immigrants for the length of their proceedings creates increased concern for the welfare of detained individuals. As Human Rights First detailed in a recent report, asylum seekers are now rarely, if ever, released on parole even if they meet all of the requirements set forth by ICE.

Asylum seekers have courageously fled severe persecution in their home countries. Yet the U.S. government is locking them up and forcing them to check their constitutional and human rights at the door. Congress should reform this system that sends many asylum seekers and other vulnerable immigrants automatically into immigration detention and implement more common sense alternatives to detention that respect the rights of these individuals and our own fundamental American principle to protect the persecuted.


Published on November 6, 2017


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