Kate Sugarman is a family physician in Washington, DC. Here, she writes about her experience assisting detained asylum seekers who have health problems, and she invites you to join her and Doctors for Camp Closure for a lobby day and march on October 18 and 19, 2019.
In about 2005, I learned that if I can properly document scars of torture for someone who is seeking asylum, it greatly increases the odds of their being granted protection. So began my passion for human rights medicine and working to bring justice to immigrants seeking asylum in the United States. I have interviewed, examined, and written up forensic evaluations for well over 600 immigrants seeking asylum. All of these people have either been granted asylum or their cases are still pending.
Over the past several years, I have also been asked to go into ICE detention centers to document scars of torture for immigrants seeking asylum. Most of these people were detained upon entering the U.S. They have not committed any crimes, and are being held only because they have requested asylum in the United States.
During the summer of 2018, like many other Americans, I became upset over family separations happening to those arriving at the ports of entry along the Southern border. I reached out to human rights doctors and lawyers and I became aware that many immigrants being detained in ICE facilities were being denied necessary medical care. I started building a medical-legal partnership, in which lawyers who were working with individuals being denied medical care while being held in detention could contact our group of doctors for an assessment of their client’s medical risk as a result of having appropriate care withheld. We then wrote medical letters to ICE to describe our findings, as a means of advocating for detainees to receive the care they needed and deserved. Some of our letters included medical assessments, such as “Denying HIV infected people their HIV pills would result in their getting sick and dying from a treatable illness,” “Denying surgery for a growing and painful inguinal hernia puts a patient in terrible pain and in grave danger,” and “Not treating a patient with a deep osteomyelitis that is now oozing large amounts of pus and giving her a fever will cause her to die from a treatable condition.”
Until a few months ago, more than half of these letters resulted in the person getting released. That is no longer the case, as ICE is now refusing to release asylum seekers, even if they are severely ill. As a result, I am shifting my energies, though I continue to work on behalf of detained immigrants who are being denied health care.
One case I worked on recently was for a man named Yoel, who is seeking asylum from Cuba and whose case was profiled on NPR. His lawyers contacted me because they were hoping I could get him released based on his untreated medical condition. He had been detained in Louisiana. He has a lung mass, which is quite suspicious for lung cancer. Instead of giving him a lung biopsy, which is the standard approach in this situation, ICE kept moving him back and forth from Louisiana to Mississippi. Despite a nationwide outcry from many doctors and members of Congress, he was deported, even though his wife is a U.S. resident living in Florida. Two days later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people arriving at the Southern border to request asylum have to wait in extremely dangerous conditions in Mexico without being allowed to enter the United States.
A few days later, I testified on behalf of a woman seeking asylum. Since she is not being provided appropriate medical care, her neurological degenerative disease is getting worse. The judge spent most of his time grilling me over details that had no relevance at all to what I was trying to tell him. In that case, we are still waiting for a decision and the asylum seeker is still behind bars.
Which leads me to why I joined D4CC – Doctors for Camp Closure. There is no healthy amount of time for any man, woman or child to be behind bars, denied the basics of human health and dignity. Seeking safety and asylum in the United States should not result in inhumane, dangerous incarceration. We have already seen the results with multiple adults and children dying in ICE custody.
Please join us Friday October 18, 2019 as we lobby Congress for the health and safety of immigrants. Our March for Migrants in Washington, DC on Saturday October 19 is open to everyone who shares our concerns. Spread the word and let’s work together to put an end to mass incarceration of people who deserve care, not condemnation.
You can find more information about D4CC and the upcoming events here: