TACOMA, Washington — The Immigration and Customs Enforcement official who oversees a detention center in the Pacific Northwest says immigrant advocates’ claims that detainees are being mistreated and neglected while in custody do not match up with the types of services her staff provides.
Nathalie Asher, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations director for the Seattle field office, insisted those in custody at the Northwest ICE Processing Center, formerly known as the Northwest Detention Center, typically receive better care than they are accustomed to outside the U.S.
“They’re coming from areas of the world where frankly they’ve never had a medical exam in their lives. The first time that they will have ever seen a doctor or certainly had a head-to-toe medical evaluation is in our custody,” said Asher, who has overseen the privately operated center for six weeks, who opened it up last week for a rare tour for reporters.
Since the start of the government fiscal year last October, eight people in ICE custody have died. In fiscal 2018, 12 people died out of 396,448 total who passed through ICE facilities. The most recent death occurred in mid-September.
Deaths are lower now than most of the past 15 calendar years from 32 in 2004 and 20 in 2005 to 10 in 2009, 5 in 2012, 12 in 2016, and 12 in 2018. However, advocacy groups say some are avoidable, and nonlethal problems in the medical program still need addressing.
The suicide of a Russian man at the Washington state facility last November occurred at about the time of a hunger strike others in the building were taking part in. The incident prompted Democratic Reps. Adam Smith and Pramila Jayapal, as well as Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, to investigate the events surrounding the death.
A class-action lawsuit was filed against the agency last month over sub-par conditions inside other ICE facilities, alleging mistreatment and poor conditions. In another instance last summer, Pueblo Unido Executive Director Cam Coval told the Washington Examiner 18 detainees at the Tacoma facility reported neglect, including being denied pain medicine for severe pain and medical treatment in unspecified circumstances.
“We’re all human here,” Asher, who most recently served as one of the top three people in the 20,000-person agency, said. “These are individuals who — we don’t lose sight of that.”
People in the Washington facility were either apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border and transferred to the location by plane or arrested at-large by ICE officers in Oregon, Washington state, or Alaska. Detainees will go through federal immigration proceedings to determine whether they will be deported or freed. But from the first day they enter this adult holding facility, Asher said healthcare is readily available.
Each adult gets looked over and screened for illnesses such as tuberculosis within the first 12 hours on site. Medical staff will also pay attention for symptoms of drug and alcohol among the 30-40% of detainees who were arrested on the street and were not already in custody.
Within the first 14 days, each person can receive a mental health, medical, and dental evaluation. Asher said it is voluntary, but people “rarely” turn it down. She said some new arrivals learn for the first time following this two-week exam that they have a chronic illness or disease.
Diabetes and hypertension are the top two diagnoses. Patients are prescribed medication and can pick it up daily from the pharmacy inside the building. Each person will be given a 14- to 30-day supply, depending on the severity of the condition, after release or removal.
The medical office looks like an urgent care center. It has a front desk, at least six exam rooms, a dental office, eye exam station, and an operating room. All medical services are handled by ICE’s Health Service Corps, which has budgeted $270 million for the year. The budget includes up to 80 medical staff, though Asher did not cite how many vacancies exist or the number of physicians on staff.
In the back of the clinic is a medical quarantine room, as well as triage rooms for people who have returned from hospitals but are still in need of medical care in a private setting.
Asher said even with psychologists on staff, patients may be sent for outside in-patient help, but it has become increasingly difficult because some patients from the federal agency are no longer being admitted to some local institutions because of hostility to ICE. As a result, Asher has had to send some mental health patients in need of additional services out-of-state to facilities in California and Florida.
For most needs, the on-site clinic is sufficient. Asher said her favorite part of the medical program is the vision center. She pointed to two red footprints on the ground in one part of the hallway.
“That is probably, for me, one of the most interesting situations where individuals don’t even know they can’t see well. And in this facility we issue them glasses and for the first time, they put the glasses on and they can actually see things, it’s transitional.”
Detainees may take their prescription glasses with them.