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WASHINGTON, July 14, 2021 — The American Civil Liberties Union filed a public records request today under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain documents related to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement’s practice of releasing hospitalized detainees from custody prior to their imminent death.

The request comes after multiple reports that ICE has formally released people from custody on their deathbeds, allowing the agency to avoid reporting their deaths to the public, avoid investigation, and avoid medical costs for people in its custody.

Most recently, ICE released Martin Vargas Arellano, a 55-year-old man and a client of the ACLU of Southern California, from custody while hospitalized, three days before his death earlier this year. Vargas Arellano contracted COVID-19 at an ICE detention facility in California, and had made several earlier requests for release based on his medical vulnerability to the virus, which ICE had denied. After releasing him from custody, ICE did not report his death, and Vargas Arellano’s own family and counsel did not find out about his passing until weeks later, after they filed a missing person’s report.

“2020 was the deadliest year for detained people in ICE custody in 15 years, with 21 deaths reported. But those are only the deaths we know about,” said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “ICE cannot avoid responsibility for mistreatment and abuse of detained people by releasing them from formal custody only on their deathbeds. The public has a right to understand the full truth and extent of suffering and death caused by ICE detention to hold the government accountable.”

ICE has reportedthat nine people have died while in custody as a result of COVID-19, but has declined to publicly report the number of detained people hospitalized due to the virus, or those whom ICE has released from custody and died while hospitalized.

The lack of transparency is especially troubling given that the House Committee on Oversight and Reform recently concluded that in some facilities ICE has failed to provide necessary medical care to people with serious and chronic medical conditions. The report also stated that ICE is facing critical medical staff shortages, and at times facility staff have falsified records to cover up problems with medical care.

The records requested include communications and documents related to the following:

  • The hospitalization, death, decision to release from custody, or release from custody of four individuals known to have died shortly after being released, including Mr. Vargas Arellano, Jose Ibarra BucioJohana Medina Leon, and Teka Gulema;
  • The release of detainees from custody who are hospitalized or transferred from detention for off-site medical care, their names, and details of their release;
  • Data and spreadsheets related to the hospitalization, release, and death of detained people who contracted COVID-19 in ICE custody;
  • The deaths of detained people who were hospitalized or transferred from detention for off-site medical care, were released from ICE custody, and subsequently died while hospitalized; and
  • Bills, invoices, charges, or payment for people who were hospitalized and were subsequently released from custody while hospitalized.

The FOIA request is online here: https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/july-2021-aclu-foia-request-ice