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After another death, will ICE finally atone for its actions?

Roylan Hernandez-Diaz, an asylum-seeker from Cuba, was found dead in his cell on Oct. 16 at Richwood Correctional Center in Louisiana.

He had been trapped in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody since May while his immigration case was pending.

He is now the second person to die in ICE custody during the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1. Last year, eight people died in ICE detention, including a man who hanged himself after being taken off suicide watch. Under President Trump’s watch, 24 people have died.     

Following Hernandez-Diaz’ death, a spokesperson for ICE said that “fatalities in ICE custody are exceedingly rare.” 

No matter how “rare,” even one death is too many, let alone two – or 24.  

ICE, which has provided fuzzy details surrounding his death and did not immediately comment, claims Hernandez-Diaz died by suicide. His widow disagrees.        

After he was again denied his release on Oct. 9, Hernandez-Diaz, 43, expressed to his wife that he would fight for his freedom, even after the judge asked him to provide further proof of his persecution in Cuba – a virtually impossible task, since he was being held captive at a remote Louisiana immigrant prison. His widow said that Hernandez-Diaz was angry and disappointed, but at no point did he suggest he had suicidal ideations. Instead, she said her husband planned to participate in a hunger strike to protest to the abuses he faced in detention, joining roughly 150 other men.         

Unfortunately, Hernandez-Diaz was not unlike many other Cuban men stuck in Louisiana detention centers. By the summer of 2019, almost 9,000 immigrants were being denied parole after having passed the interview given to them by U.S. immigration officials at the border that validated their fear of home. Hernandez-Diaz was one of them.     

In the Deep South, immigration judges deny virtually all asylum claims. Earlier this year, the SPLC sued ICE over its low rate of release for asylum-seekers in the Southern region, where Hernandez-Diaz would have been a potential class member in the case.

But the New Orleans ICE Field Office has – not surprisingly – blatantly disregarded a federal judge’s order to restore access to parole for asylum-seekers indefinitely detained in the Deep South. It appears as though no one is holding ICE accountable for its actions.

After Hernandez-Diaz’ death, the ICE spokesperson also said that the agency is “firmly committed to the health and welfare of those in its custody.” The evidence strongly suggests otherwise. Rather than being firmly committed to detainees’ care, ICE is instead firmly dedicated to making life as miserable as possible for those in its “care” – in keeping with the Trump administration’s broader strategy of deliberate cruelty toward immigrants of color.

Firsthand accounts of those in custody testify that ICE treats immigrants no better than garbage on the street, belittles them by labeling them “dogs,” and insists they have no rights. Some immigrants have said that prison guards would rather they die or be deported than to provide the adequate medical care they need to save their lives. Those who protest their detention through hunger-striking are often forced into solitary confinement, or face retaliation by being force-fed, viewed by many as a form of torture.

But the overarching abuses don’t stop there.   

ICE dehumanizes and humiliates the immigrants it detains. They are reduced to a number. In detention, they aren’t allowed the opportunity to sleep in peace. They are only permitted – at most – an hour outside a day. Some are forced to work for as little as a $1 a day in for-profit prisons, even while sick. Their illnesses often worsen, or they sink into debilitating stress and depression – most of which goes ignored by immigrant prison staff. Like cattle, they are also corralled in facilities, their hands and feet shackled, their waists cinched by a chain, as they are escorted from their dorms to the cafeteria. Right now, the SPLC is suing ICE over its deplorable neglect of the medical, mental health and disability needs of detainees in nearly 160 facilities across the country.

But has ICE ever admitted any wrongdoing?

The simple answer is no. If anything, ICE is ratcheting up its cruel practices both inside and outside of detention. The agency has already wrongfully detained nearly 1,500 U.S. citizens – one of whom was detained for over three years. ICE has also succeeded in rounding up and detaining immigrants in massive raids, thus separating children from their parents and family members. Further, inside detention centers, ICE claims that staffers are “not responsible” for the rampant sexual abuse of detainees in its “care.” But perhaps most shocking, is that confronted with continued denials for parole or bond, threats of mass suicide by detainees now swirl throughout immigrant prisons.   

While obvious that ICE lacks any kind of moral compass, the unfortunate truth is that detention centers will continue to thrive, and ICE will continue to derail and irreparably harm the lives of countless people. Until the agency is held responsible for its reprehensible actions – an unlikely outcome, given the president’s well-documented contempt for immigrants – Hernandez-Diaz’s widow, along with thousands of other immigrants subjected to ICE’s inhumane treatment, will likely never receive the apology – and justice – they rightly deserve.            

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images