Last week, Wonk Room reported that a federal judge rejected a U.S. government request to dismiss a lawsuit brought against immigration authorities by a U.S. citizen and military veteran who claims that he was mistakenly detained for seven months. This week, a judge will decide on whether the federal government bears culpability for another immigration detention slip up: the August 2008 death of Chinese immigrant, Hiu Lui “Jason” Ng. ICE is also arguing that this case should be dismissed on grounds that staffers at the jail at which NG died are contractors — not government employees.
After emigrating to the U.S. from China in 1992, Ng became a computer engineer, a husband of a U.S. citizen, and a father to two American-born sons. Ng, who had overstayed a visa years earlier, was going into his final interview for a green card when he was swept into immigration detention where he spent the final months of his life. When Ng complained that he was experiencing excruciating back pain while in custody he was allegedly accused of faking symptoms and ultimately pressured by an immigration officer to withdraw all pending appeals of his case and accept deportation. By the time Ng was finally taken to a hospital, he had terminal cancer and a fractured spine. He died five days later.
Ng’s family has named ICE and about two dozen other defendants in its lawsuit. While ICE has acknowledged that Ng was mistreated, the agency doesn’t think it should be held legally responsible for his death since Ng was under the supervision of contractors, not ICE staff. However, lawyers for the Ng family argue that the government’s defense is a troubling attempt to “punt responsibility and have it both ways.” Steven Brown of the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the lawsuit, points out:
Only the government has the ability to lock people away, and yet it wants to wash its hands of any responsibility of what happens once people are detained in these facilities…It only increases the severity of the problems because of the total lack of accountability.
To ICE’s credit, the agency did pull all 153 of its immigration detainees from the jail in which Ng died, terminated its contract and issued a report lambasting the detention facility’s staff. Late last year, ICE announced that it was implementing reforms that move away from the “decentralized, jail-oriented approach” of the Bush administration with the goal of bringing “improved medical care, custodial conditions, fiscal prudence, and ICE oversight” to the U.S. detention system. However, while these necessary changes are commendable, they don’t excuse ICE from assuming legal responsibility for the missteps, blunders, and tragedies that developed under its watch.