The death of 34-year-old Hiu Lui Ng, an immigrant from Hong Kong, while in the custody of US immigration authorities has provoked nationwide outrage.
Ng had moved to the US as early as 1992 and was employed as a computer engineer in New York. He had married a US citizen who bore him two sons.
But everything came down crashing last year when he approached the immigration headquarters with the fond hope of finally getting his green card.
Unfortunately for him, he had overstayed a visa years earlier. In 2001, a notice ordering him to appear in immigration court was mistakenly sent to a nonexistent address, records show. When Ng did not show up at the hearing, the judge ordered him deported.
By then, however, he was getting married, and on a separate track, his wife petitioned Citizenship and Immigration Services for a green card for him - a process that took more than five years. Heeding bad legal advice, the couple showed up for his green card interview on July 19, 2007, only to find enforcement agents waiting to arrest Ng on the old deportation order.
Thereafter he was shuttled through jails and his health deteriorated. In April, Ng began complaining of excruciating back pain. By mid-July, he could no longer walk or stand. And last Wednesday, two days after his 34th birthday, he died in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a Rhode Island hospital, his spine fractured and his body riddled with cancer that had gone undiagnosed and untreated for months.
On Tuesday, with an autopsy by the Rhode Island medical examiner under way, his lawyers demanded a criminal investigation in a letter to U.S. and state prosecutors in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont, and the Department of Homeland Security, which runs the detention system.
In U.S. court affidavits, Ng's lawyers contend that when he complained of severe pain that did not respond to analgesics, and grew too weak to walk or even stand to call his family from a detention pay phone, officials accused him of faking his condition. They denied him a wheelchair and refused pleas for an independent medical evaluation.
Instead, the affidavits say, guards at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, Rhode Island, dragged him from his bed on July 30, carried him in shackles to a car, bruising his arms and legs, and drove him two hours to a U.S. government lockup in Hartford, Connecticut, where an immigration officer pressured him to withdraw all pending appeals of his case and accept deportation.
The accounts of Ng's treatment echo other cases that have prompted legislation, now before the House Judiciary Committee, to set mandatory standards for care in immigration detention.
In March, the U.S. government admitted medical negligence in the death of Francisco Castañeda, 36, a Salvadoran whose cancer went undiagnosed in a California detention center as he was repeatedly denied a biopsy on a painful penile lesion. In May, The New York Times, of which the International Herald Tribune is the global edition, chronicled the death of Boubacar Bah, 52, a Guinean tailor who suffered a skull fracture and brain hemorrhages in the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey; records show he was left in an isolation cell without treatment for more than 13 hours.
On any given day, about 31,000 people who are not American citizens are held in detention in a patchwork of county jails, privately run prisons and federal facilities while the government decides whether to deport them.
Getting details about those who die in custody is a difficult undertaking left to family members, advocacy groups and lawyers.
As the immigration detention system has ballooned to meet demands for stricter enforcement of immigration laws, Congress has listened to complaints about the secrecy and confusion surrounding deaths in custody. In January 2008, the House passed a bill that would reward states that require jails to report all deaths. But the bill is stalled in the Senate, and even if it becomes law, it will not cover deaths in federal facilities.
Such bills would do little to address the inhumanity seemingly embedded in the system, more so after the so-called war on terror was declared. It is now turning to be a war on immigrants, say critics harshly.