Lawsuit Seeks Records to Shed Light on Deaths of Detainees in DHS Custody

(Photo: BBC News)

American Oversight today sued the Department of Homeland Security to compel the release of senior officials’ communications — including those of former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan — related to the deaths of individuals detained by ICE and Border Patrol.

At least seven migrant children have died while in the custody of Customs and Border Protection, raising concerns about the treatment of those detained at the border and the conditions in detention centers. The Trump administration’s immigration policies, which have kept minors in custody for longer than the legally allowed time limits, could be contributing to the increase in minors getting sick and dying while in custody or shortly after they are released.

Carlos Gregorio Hernández Vásquez died in custody last month after being diagnosed with the flu. Despite the law requiring unaccompanied migrant children to be transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours, he remained in a detention center for about a week before being transferred to a border patrol station.

In December 2018, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin also died in CBP custody after she had to wait an hour and a half before receiving emergency medical care. Despite widespread congressional concern about these tragedies, then-CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, who is now acting secretary of homeland security, failed to notify Congress of Maquin’s death within 24 hours, as required by law, and a few days later still did not report her death during his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Then-Secretary Nielsen also testified before Congress later that month on the deaths and could not provide a specific number of how many other people might have died in U.S. government custody.

In addition to official records related to the mistreatment of individuals in DHS custody, American Oversight is also seeking the release of communications, talking points, and memos of top department officials regarding detainee deaths.  The suit also aims to shed light on the treatment of vulnerable detainees, including what top DHS officials knew about serious threats to the health and lives of people in custody, and how that information shaped their public communications.

“DHS leadership has stonewalled on answers to why individuals died in its custody,” said American Oversight Executive Director Austin Evers. “Until they start being transparent, the public is left to wonder whether these events were the result of negligence and indifference. The American people have a right to know what led to these tragedies and what’s being done to prevent more.”

These deaths, along with reports of poor facilities, inadequate medical treatment of pregnant women, and abuse of transgender detainees, have raised serious concerns about the well-being of individuals in DHS custody, especially minors. We’ve filed several Freedom of Information Act requests to find out more about the treatment of pregnant, transgender, and other vulnerable detainees, as well as to shed light on abuse in detention centers.

See the complaint below:


Update: June 21, 2019

On Friday, American Oversight filed an additional lawsuit seeking records from DHS, CBP, and ICE relating to the deaths of immigrants in custody. The second lawsuit seeks copies of complaints received by the DHS civil rights office, reports filed by ICE regarding the deaths of detainees, and records maintained by ICE and CBP regarding the detention of immigrants who later died in custody.

Related Blog Posts

June 27, 2019

The Department of Homeland Security Doesn’t Know Where Trump Got Those Immigration Numbers, Either

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security
Investigation Update
June 13, 2019

Documents Reveal New Information About 2017 CBP Media Efforts

Customs and Border Protection
Investigation Update
May 24, 2019

News Roundup: Congressional Hearing Shows and No-Shows

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of Transportation, Department of Veterans Affairs, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Taylor County - Florida
April 24, 2019

American Oversight and ACLU of Massachusetts Sue DHS for Border Security Plan

Investigation Update
March 13, 2019

Two Years of American Oversight

February 15, 2019

News Roundup: Citizenship, the Census and the Constitution

Department of Commerce, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice
February 1, 2019

News Roundup: More Troops at the Border Means More Questions for the Administration

Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security
January 18, 2019

News Roundup: Two Troubling Inspector General Reports

Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, General Services Administration
January 11, 2019

News Roundup: The Administration’s Misleading Claims About Terrorists at the Southern Border

Department of Homeland Security
December 27, 2018

Countdown to Oversight in 2019

December 12, 2018

Audit the Wall: No Plans, Funding or Timeline — And No Wall

Customs and Border Protection, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State
Investigation Update
December 5, 2018

American Oversight Sues Administration for Records of Family-Separation Policy

Administration for Children and Families, Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review, HHS Office of Inspector General, Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Investigation Update