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Thursday, 12 July 2018 06:48

How Immigration Detention Can Drive Detainees to Suicide

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800px Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre 7505717124 DIAC images /WikiCommons

In the outrage over forced separation of migrant children from their parents at the US-Mexico border manufactured by President Trump's "zero-tolerance" policy, it is easy to lose sight of experiences that could be equally traumatic, such as detaining families together.

While President Trump signed an executive order ending family separation, he simultaneously ordered the indefinite detention of whole families. Furthermore, the government has still failed to reunite many of the 2,300 children who were separated from their parents, including infants and toddlers, and detained in facilities exclusively for children. Immigration detention has become institutionalized by governments across the globe as a  tool for controlling "illegal immigration" at any cost. Therefore, it is important for us to understand the human costs of the US immigration detention system.

An extreme example is the death of a 34-year-old asylum seeker from Eritrea whose suicide is not simply a statistic to me. I knew him personally and remain in mourning for him and his family. He was denied asylum and hanged himself on June 8 while being deported to his homeland.

Crimmigration.com reports that ICE detained, on average, 38,106 people every day, in fiscal year 2017, which ran from October 1, 2016, to September 30, 2017 -- a figure that exceeds the congressional bed mandate by 4,000 people. Furthermore, the Center for Migration Studies in New York shows that the Department of Homeland Security hopes to detain an average of 40,520 each day for fiscal year 2018. For fiscal year 2019, its aspirations are to detain 47,000 each day.

Living conditions inside detention jails range from poor to appalling. Complaints about spoiled and insufficient food are ever present, as are complaints about poor medical care. Human Rights Watch published a report on June 20 demonstrating that more people died in immigration detention in fiscal year 2017 than in any year since 2009, and that these deaths were linked to "dangerously inadequate medical care."

As an immigrant and advocate for detainees, I have witnessed, firsthand, the indignities, humiliation and pettiness experienced daily by adult detainees through weekly visits to one such detention jail over several years. On one occasion, I was not allowed to visit a detainee because he did not tie his shoelaces properly and was denied a visit as punishment.

Another indignity for immigrants is being transferred across the US like so many chess pieces. Without warning, detainees are awakened in the middle of the night and told to get dressed and pack up their belongings. They are shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles to go they know not where; sometimes to another city, county or state. Other times, it is to be deported to their homeland. They find out only when they are herded onto a plane. Transfers also effectively remove detainees from family and friends nearby and, more importantly, attorneys, if they even have one.

Detention can also be torturous because detainees have no idea how long they will be inside. The suspense strains them. According to psychological research, stress is increased and exacerbates other health issues when detention is coupled with prolonged uncertainty associated with the processing of asylum claims, including court hearings and appeals, which can take months, or even years. Indeed, one woman who attempted suicide described detention as "soul destroying."

Furthermore, thoughts of suicide and self-harm in detention are common, as well as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. One man told me that many detainees pass the time by contemplating ways to kill themselves. For those seeking protection from persecution, imprisonment, torture and death threats in their homeland, being denied asylum can feel like a death sentence, and hopelessness and despair can drive them to suicide.

ICE data about deaths and suicides is difficult to obtain. The Houston Chronicle reported in January that there have been 27 suicides in ICE's 14-year history. But, a report by the American Immigration Lawyers Association indicates that 29 people died in ICE custody between December 24, 2015, and June 16. Seven of these deaths occurred this year. Three of the deaths were cases of suicide, including that of the young Eritrean. In 11 cases, ICE press releases show only name and place, not cause of death.

As a nation, if we persist in the habit of "death by policy," we will be in grave danger of losing our own humanity. How many more must die before we value and respect human life?