On April 6, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced the death of 61 year-old Salvador Vargas at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA which occurred on April 4. Deaths in ICE custody are far too common, and particularly devastating in detention centers with a history of medical neglect. Though this is the first reported death in ICE custody in 2023, this reporting can be misleading. ICE has repeatedly released critically-ill individuals from detention (most often to a hospital) to distance themselves from responsibility for an immigrant’s eventual death. 

Deaths in ICE detention hit a 15-year high in fiscal year 2020, coinciding with the outbreak of COVID-19 and its devastating impact on people held in jails, prisons, and detention centers. While the pandemic contributed to some of the increase in deaths, overall conditions in detention when the Trump administration was detaining a record 50,000+ people, contributed to the high death toll.  

The Stewart Detention Center is known as one of the deadliest immigration detention centers, with this being the ninth reported death there since 2017.  Investigations of previous deaths at Stewart revealed extraordinary levels of neglect and misconduct. In at least one case, the actions of the officials at the detention center led to a wrongful death lawsuit being filed against ICE and CoreCivic, the private prison corporation that operates Stewart Detention Center. That investigation, which echoes reports across the immigration detention system, documented extended use of solitary confinement on individuals with severe mental illness, ignoring requests for medical care, and falsifying records after the fact to attempt to cover-up wrongdoing.  

With the number of deaths reported in ICE detention already disturbingly high, many advocates believe the actual death toll attributed to ICE custody is much higher. That is because ICE regularly “releases” individuals from ICE custody shortly before death, which allows them to avoid counting those individuals official reports. In October 2021, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against ICE for not disclosing these deaths. Similar cases were exposed when advocates heard from other detained individuals about someone who was rushed to a hospital from detention, where they later died. When these deaths were not reported by ICE, journalists and advocates had to investigate.  

In New Mexico, a transgender asylum-seeker was given parole documents to sign while in a hospital bed after having sought and been denied medical care at the Otero Processing Center over several weeks. She died four days later, never leaving the hospital. Other cases included in the ACLU lawsuit, include men who were “released” from ICE detention while hospitalized and in a coma.  

Medical neglect is also a common factor in many detention centers, particularly those with high death rates. In addition to Mr. Vargas’s death, the Stewart Detention Center has been the subject of numerous lawsuits and civil rights complaints involving their provision of medical care. Currently, there is an ongoing investigation into the sexual assault of multiple individuals by a detention center nurse 

Deaths in immigration detention are only the most extreme indications of the dangers of immigration detention. They reveal a convergence of horrific conditions, medical neglect, and abusive practices towards individuals many of whom are already in mental health crisis. This tragic death is more evidence of a system that cannot be repaired – a system where the cost of defending your rights in civil immigration proceedings could be your life. It is clear that the cost is just too high.