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Trump Administration Faces Class Action Lawsuit Alleging Health Care Failures By ICE


The Trump administration faces a new class-action lawsuit alleging failures by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The suit alleges that in nearly 160 detention centers across the country, ICE has deprived migrant detainees of medical and mental health care. It has over-relied on solitary confinement, and it has failed to provide disability accommodations. The Southern Poverty Law Center is one of the groups representing the plaintiffs. And Lisa Graybill is working on the case for them. She joins us now.



CHANG: So just give us an idea of some of the more concerning stories you've been hearing from these detainees bringing this lawsuit.

GRAYBILL: Absolutely. We have one client named Hamida Ali who was detained for about nine months at the Aurora detention facility and was recently moved to a small county jail in Teller, Colo. She has schizophrenia and a variety of other mental health disabilities. While she was at Aurora, she was in solitary for nine months completely alone in a dormitory built for dozens with only the television for company. And solitary is increasingly recognized as torture around the world because it exacerbates symptoms for anyone who is already struggling with a mental health disability and can create mental illness even in folks who come into solitary without having those issues.

CHANG: What about alleged inadequate medical health care?

GRAYBILL: Sure. We have a client who advised ICE when he entered the facility that he had a heart condition. He repeatedly requested appropriate treatment and medication. He was told that he would be seen by a specialist. That was delayed. And it wasn't until he went into actual cardiac arrest that he was finally taken to see a specialist. But the follow-up that the specialist recommended still hasn't been provided. Our clients and others in detention are often told, you'll be deported soon. It doesn't matter. You can get that fixed when you go home. Of course, a huge percentage of the folks in immigrant detention are asylum-seekers.

CHANG: I want to get a sense of the scale of this class action, how widespread these allegations have been. How many class members do you expect?

GRAYBILL: Based on the most recent figures we were able to obtain, there are about 55,000 people in detention on any given day. We are alleging that they are all at substantial risk of serious harm because of the insufficiency of medical and mental health care and ICE's failure to ensure that its systems and its contractors meet the constitutional and regulatory standards.

CHANG: We should say that we did reach out to ICE, and they said they don't comment on pending litigation. But they did say that, quote, "comprehensive medical care is provided to all individuals in ICE custody" and that in general, quote, "sensationalist claims about fatality rates are not substantiated by the facts." What do you say to that?

GRAYBILL: ICE's own detainee death reports counter exactly what ICE just said and show multiple examples of the catastrophic failure of the health systems that are supposed to be operative in these facilities.

CHANG: And what is the goal ultimately here with this lawsuit? I mean, do you think the government can realistically turnaround and improve health care for some 50,000 people to your satisfaction? Or is there something else you would like to see happen because of this lawsuit?

GRAYBILL: I do think the government can re-evaluate its policies on detention, drastically decrease the number of detainees that are incarcerated and improve the conditions for those that remain. The government doesn't have a choice. It does have a choice about whether or not to detain. And it's exercising that choice to detain unprecedented numbers of people. But it doesn't have a choice about whether to comply with the Constitution or with statutory regulations like the Rehabilitation Act.

CHANG: Lisa Graybill is the deputy legal director of criminal justice reform at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

GRAYBILL: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.