Records obtained as part of American Oversight’s investigation of deaths in immigration custody show that Immigration and Customs Enforcement failed to follow its own death notification procedures in the case of asylum-seeker Mergensana Amar, who died in 2018. The records also raise concerns about the care he received — including his continued restraint, over the objection of medical professionals, even after he was declared brain dead.
Amar, a Russian national, died after a suicide attempt at an ICE facility in Tacoma, Wash., following the denial of his asylum application and an ensuing hunger strike. Last week, Crosscut reported on the documents, which were obtained by American Oversight in response to Freedom of Information Act requests and litigation.
Included in the records is a detailed log of events that begins on Nov. 15, 2018, with Amar described as “unconscious and unresponsive” at St. Joseph Medical Center. Officials wrote they had been advised he had “no brain activity” at the time, but were awaiting a neurologist’s confirmation. Later that day, the log says medical staff believed he had “0% chance of recovery” and would be considered medically brain dead if he stopped breathing on his own.
The log notes that a few days later, at around 2 p.m. on Nov. 18, an official, whose name is redacted, “notified” hospital staff to put Amar in restraints. Amar was declared brain dead a few hours later, but the log appears to show that the restraints remained in place, despite hospital staff complaints, until the afternoon of Nov. 21.
Emails included in the documents also indicate the warden of the Tacoma facility, which is run by private contractor GEO Group, tried to intervene in Amar’s care during this same period. On Nov. 16, according to one email from a clinical director at ICE’s Health Service Corps (IHSC), the warden “talked with the attending [physician at St. Joseph] and was told of the poor prognosis for this patient. He then indicated to the attending he agreed with her not [to] do any medical interventions other than basic supportive care. Unfortunately this was passed on to the nursing team in ICU.” The IHSC clinical director went on to note that the warden did not have “any medical authority over this patient,” and that they had told the doctor to work through the IHSC regarding medical care.
In addition, ICE policy says that the agency is supposed to notify Congress, relevant non-governmental organizations, and the media about deaths in custody within two business days of an official report of a detainee’s death. The records we obtained suggest that local ICE officials were aware of this policy, but did not follow it in Amar’s case — possibly due to confusion about Amar being kept on life support following his brain death.
“[T]echnically Mr. Amar died on Nov. 18,” one ICE official wrote in an email chain on Nov. 20. “We need some guidance about whether this changes how we message this issue, and how we handle the Congressional offices. We need to come up with a plan of how we move forward from here.” ICE didn’t issue a death notification until almost a week later, on Nov. 26.
Maru Mora Villalpando of La Resistencia, an activist group that advocated for Amar while he was hospitalized and helped send his remains to his family, told Crosscut she was “not surprised what [ICE] did to Amar.”
“It’s about their image. It’s about their PR,” she said. American Oversight is continuing to seek information about the Trump administration’s treatment of people in immigration detention, and is suing for related records. Even with the end of the Trump presidency in sight, these documents serve as an important accountability measure by preserving a historical record of potential human rights abuses.
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