Questions remain around the death of Ernesto Rocha-Cuadra; tragedy marks fifth death at Louisiana immigration detention center since 2016
NEW ORLEANS – The Shut Down NOLA ICE Coalition issued the following statement about the death of Ernesto Rocha-Cuadra, a 42-year-old Nicaraguan man who endured over a year in the Central Louisiana ICE Processing Center (“Jena”), a privately-operated U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center run by the GEO Group, Inc., in Jena, Louisiana. The facility has a disturbing track record of death and abuse.
Ernesto was recommended for release by an ICE panel in November 2022, but officials at the Jena location declined to release him. His death from an alleged cardiac arrest marks the fifth death in ICE custody at Jena since 2016. It is the eleventh death under ICE’s purview during the Biden administration.
According to his attorneys, Ernesto was petitioning for his freedom through a writ of habeas corpus and, as confirmed by the Executive Office of Immigration Review, he was slated for an immigration hearing on July 9. The details leading up to this tragic death are still unclear, and his attorneys say Ernesto never mentioned having, nor did his medical records reflect, any heart-related medical issues.
ICE incarcerated Ernesto for over a year during which he suffered extensive time in solitary confinement. The practice is so psychologically destructive that the United Nations considers the imposition of segregation for longer than 15 days to violate international law.
For years, the New Orleans ICE Field Office (“NOLA ICE”) and private prison officials have demonstrated a disturbing pattern of deadly medical neglect against the immigrants detained under their authority, disregarding their constitutional rights and engaging in other human rights abuses and violations. Repeated inspections and even investigations by oversight agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s own Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, have failed to stop these abuses.
Immigration detention of any form and any length has proven deadly. Less than three months ago another man, Salvador Vargas, died while in ICE custody at the Lumpkin, Georgia facility run by private prison company CoreCivic. Last month, an eight-year-old Garifuna girl, Anadith Tanay Reyes Alvarez, died while in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody after officials ignored her mother’s pleas for emergency medical care for several days. Despite the ongoing deaths, human rights violations and impunity on the part of ICE and CBP, the Biden administration has elected to increase detention numbers in both agencies. The total number of people in ICE custody has increased by 39 percent since the end of the Title 42 asylum ban in early May.
“They kept telling him he was going to be released soon,” said Frank Rocha-Cuadra, Ernesto’s U.S. citizen brother residing in California. “He was guaranteed he was coming home. Our message is, we want to know what happened to our Ernesto and we will not stop until we find out.”
“Notwithstanding the terrible conditions in which he was jailed, Ernesto always greeted me with a smile and cracking jokes. His tragic death after being caged by ICE for more than a year is a reminder of how useless and unnecessary the immigration detention system truly is,” said Homero López, Ernesto’s immigration counsel and Legal Director of Immigration Services and Legal Advocacy.
“Not one more! ¡Ni una menos! We will not be silenced as our community continues to be killed in these cages and by the immigration enforcement system. Just like Ernesto, I suffered unjust and cruel solitary confinement against my will in Jena because I am a transgender woman. Just like Ernesto, we have lost so many others due to ICE’s abuse and negligence, including LGBTQ asylum seekers like my TransLatina immigrant sisters Roxana Hernandez and Johana Medina who fled to this country seeking safety from homophobic and transphobic violence, only to find cruelty and premature death. Yet the Biden administration continues with plans to expand immigrant detention and refuses to hold ICE accountable for these deaths. They abuse us in these ICE centers when we stand up for rights. These places need to be shut down,” said Arely West, national immigrant LGBTQ+ & HIV rights activist with Home is Here and Vice to ICE Campaign Director with Breakout!
“Ernesto repeatedly spoke out against the abuses and inhumane treatment he suffered at Jena, and officials engaged in a clear pattern of retaliation to silence him,” said Sofia Casini, Director of Monitoring and Community Advocacy with Freedom for Immigrants. “Ernesto’s highly suspicious death underscores the daily brutality with which officials at Jena inflict upon immigrants. Ernesto should be alive — and free — today. Our hearts go out to Ernesto’s family and community, who now face the unimaginable trauma of burying their loved one while questions remain about his untimely and wholly avoidable death.”
GEO Group, now a near-billion-dollar company, opened the Jena facility in December 1998 as a juvenile detention center. On April 5, 2000, just over a year later, they were pushed into shutting down a week after the U.S. Department of Justice sued them to protect the children and young adults from horrific, life-threatening conditions — many which persist to-date. Unfortunately, seven years later and after changing its name, the company reopened the facility as an ICE jail.
“This place was closed down in 2000 — it should have stayed closed because then Ernesto, and others like him, would still be alive today and home with their families where they belong,” said Mich González, Steering Committee Co-Chair of the Shut Down NOLA ICE Coalition. “My heart is broken for everyone in Ernesto’s family, community and for all the people still fighting for their lives, health and safety inside these cages. Ernesto’s family deserves an independent autopsy and investigation. Their demand for justice reinforces the need for everyone to be released and the facility be permanently shut down.”
“Ernesto’s untimely death raises many questions that should be investigated at the highest levels. This immigrant prison must be shut down,” said Rose Murray, senior direct services attorney with the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative at the Southern Poverty Law Center.