CBS’s Pelley: Illegal Immigrants ‘Don't Survive Detention In America’

Still Shot of Scott Pelley, May 11 On Sunday’s CBS "60 Minutes," anchor Scott Pelley looked at the healthcare provided to illegal immigrants in U.S. detention facilities: "Before 9/11, about 100,000 detainees went through this system each year; but today, with stricter immigration rules, that number has tripled to more than 300,000. The surge appears to have overwhelmed the medical care provided to the immigrants. Now a Washington Post investigation joined by 60 Minutes has found evidence that immigrants are suffering from neglect, and some don't survive detention in America."

Pelley then highlighted a few extreme examples of poor medical care, beginning with Joseph Dantica, an 81-year-old minister from Haiti who fled the country and was detained in the U.S.. After only 48 hours in custody, Dantica became ill: "Records show that two days later, during an asylum hearing, he became violently ill and collapsed...In a day and a half, Reverend Dantica was dead. The medical examiner said it was pancreatitis." Of course Pelley placed blame with U.S. immigration services: "A detention center physician's assistant failed to recognize that Dantica was in serious trouble...It took four hours to get him to an outside hospital."

Pelley suggested that Dantica’s case was part of a much larger problem: "But, in one sense, Reverend Dantica was not alone. He's among hundreds of sick or dying detainees inside 22 detention centers, plus state and local jails." Pelley went to play a clip of Washington Post reporter, Dana Priest, who exclaimed: "This is not just some deaths or just some sick people anecdotally. If you take them all together, they show poor medical judgments, faulty administrative practices, sloppy paperwork, lost medical records and very dangerous staffing levels...They show a bureaucracy that offers many immigrants no care or slow care or poor care, and they also show that the employees inside are panicked about this."

Another case Pelley presented was that of Francisco Castaneda, an illegal immigrant who was detained for deportation on drug charges and who died shortly after being released due to undiagnosed cancer. Pelley talked to the Castaneda family's attorney, Conal Doyle, who described the case this way: "The judge in this case, the federal district court has entered an order describing the care received by Castaneda as transcending negligence by miles and being beyond cruel and unusual."

Pelley then suggested to Doyle that some people would not see healthcare for illegal immigrant detainees as a priority:

PELLEY: You know that there are people watching this interview who are saying to themselves, 'Castaneda was an illegal immigrant. He had a drug conviction. The people of the United States owed him nothing.'

DOYLE: I'm sure there's people out there that think that. But that's not what the law is and that's not what a civilized society does. And, you know, if it's true that you judge the degree of civilization in a society by entering its prisons, the United States has a long way to go on this particular issue.

PELLEY: Two weeks ago, DIHS admitted to a federal court that it was medically negligent in its treatment of Francisco Castaneda. Now Congress is considering a bill to set new standards for immigrant detainee health care.

Here is the full transcript of the segment:

7:21PM SEGMENT:

SCOTT PELLEY: Since 9/11, there have been a lot of changes in how the United States deals with immigrants. One of the biggest is the explosive growth of a system of immigrant detention centers that few Americans know anything about. Immigrants who come into the country illegally, or refugees who apply for political asylum, often go into detention. Some for many months. Before 9/11, about 100,000 detainees went through this system each year; but today, with stricter immigration rules, that number has tripled to more than 300,000. The surge appears to have overwhelmed the medical care provided to the immigrants. Now a Washington Post investigation joined by 60 Minutes has found evidence that immigrants are suffering from neglect, and some don't survive detention in America.

PELLEY: This is Haiti in 2004, when United Nations troops were fighting militant gangs in the streets. Eighty-one-year-old Reverend Joseph Dantica, a Baptist minister, saw his church ransacked, so he fled to the United States and asked for political asylum. His niece, Edwidge Danticat says he was taken straight to a US immigration detention center. He was essentially arrested?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Yes. I consider it an arrest because he had to ask for special relief for him not to be handcuffed; and they did allow him that, but told him that if he ran they would shoot him.

PELLEY: Reverend Dantica raised Edwidge in Haiti. She moved to the US at the age of 12 and grew up to become a prize-winning author. She was waiting for him in Miami. When you heard that he was being detained, what did you think?

DANTICAT: Well, I was horrified. Eighty-one-years-old and after the ordeal that he had been through in Haiti, I just -- I worried about his ability to handle that.

PELLEY: Records show that two days later, during an asylum hearing, he became violently ill and collapsed. A detention center physician's assistant failed to recognize that Dantica was in serious trouble. Help me understand, from the records that you've seen, precisely what the medic said about your uncle and his condition.

DANTICAT: It appeared that he said, 'I, you know, he's -- I think he's faking.' Or something to that effect.

PELLEY: It took four hours to get him to an outside hospital. His family wasn't allowed to see him. In a day and a half, Reverend Dantica was dead. The medical examiner said it was pancreatitis. What did you think in that moment?

DANTICAT: Just a series of things. Of course, you know, a great deal of sadness because he died so alone.

PELLEY: Had died without his family.

DANTICAT: Yeah, and after being treated like an animal.

PELLEY: Treated like an animal?

DANTICAT: Someone who was just trying to escape horrible things, who was so old and sick, just had to die that way.

PELLEY: But, in one sense, Reverend Dantica was not alone. He's among hundreds of sick or dying detainees inside 22 detention centers, plus state and local jails. The federal lockups range from this former warehouse in New Jersey that houses 325, to this desert facility near the Mexican border. They're run by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known by its initials, ICE. Inside the detention centers, medical care is provided by another federal agency, the Division of Immigration Health Services, or DIHS. Reporters Dana Priest and Amy Goldstein of the Washington Post have been investigating DIHS.

DANA PRIEST: This is not just some deaths or just some sick people anecdotally. If you take them all together, they show poor medical judgments, faulty administrative practices, sloppy paperwork, lost medical records and very dangerous staffing levels.

PELLEY: Priest, who contributes to 60 Minutes, and Goldstein have obtained thousands of internal DIHS documents. They're investigations, e-mails, autopsy reports and complaints. What sort of a picture do they paint of how DIHS is working?

PRIEST: They show a bureaucracy that offers many immigrants no care or slow care or poor care, and they also show that the employees inside are panicked about this.

PELLEY: For example, last year, 21-year-old detainee Juan Guevara was complaining of severe headaches. Soon he had died of a brain aneurysm. A staff member wrote: "The detainee was prescribed Tylenol. The detainee was not seen or evaluated by an RN, mid-level physician's assistant or physician." This internal report from 2007 was written after a detainee died of a contagious infection: "The clinical staff at all levels fails to recognize early signs and symptoms of meningitis." This memo from 2007 sounds an alarm over staffing shortages. In Buffalo, written in all caps: "Critical staffing situation occurring. Site is down to only three full-time nurses." In Arizona: "Critical staffing levels. Site has reached a 48 percent nursing vacancy rate." While the number of immigrants in detention has tripled since 9/11, the health services budget has grown only 65 percent.

PRIEST: Here's the acting director in August. "We're facing critical staffing shortages at most every site. While we've developed, executed and achieved major successes in our recruitment efforts, we've been unable to meet the demand."

PELLEY: One immigrant detained in 2007 was Amina Mudey. She fled Somalia after her father, brothers and sister were murdered. Amina landed in New York and requested political asylum.

ANN SCHOFIELD BAKER: The medical treatment that Amina received was absolutely deplorable, substandard, sanctionable and flat-out malpractice.

PELLEY: Ann Schofield Baker is Amina Mudey's lawyer. She says Amina was detained in that former warehouse in New Jersey and almost immediately she was prescribed a powerful anti-psychotic drug called Risperdal. How did she come to be on Risperdal to begin with? I mean, was she psychotic?

SCHOFIELD BAKER: She was disoriented. They brought her to the facility shackled. She was absolutely petrified, and she collapsed and had a panic attack. From that, someone concluded that she was psychotic.

PELLEY: Schofield Baker says on Risperdal, Amina was dazed, drooling and helpless. A human rights group asked her to represent Amina. She got her own doctors, took Amina off the drug, and Amina was granted asylum. Now Amina is studying computers and English. What was it like when you walked out of there?

AMINA MUDEY: (Translator) Outside was beautiful.

PELLEY: It was a tough start for you.

MUDEY: America is wonderful place. I like it, New York.

PELLEY: Amina's alleged mis-diagnosis isn't an isolated case, according to this internal memo from last year, written by the head of mental health at the Division of Immigration Health Services.

PRIEST: The top psychologist worried about mental health. He says, "We need to stop looking for Band-Aid solutions for these problems. The little money managed care may save in the short run is going to be dwarfed by the millions that will be paid out by ICE when the lawsuits roll in." There have been just a handful of lawsuits so far, but they know they're sitting on a powder keg.

FRANCISCO CASTANEDA: My name is Francisco Castaneda.

PELLEY: DIHS is being sued in the case of 35-year-old Francisco Castaneda, seen here on his deathbed. Castaneda immigrated illegally from El Salvador at the age of 10. In 2004, he spent a few months in jail for drug possession, then he was sent to a detention center for deportation. When you look back on how he was treated at the detention center over those months, what do you think?

YANIRA: I'm mad, sad.

PELLEY: Castaneda's sister Yanira says her brother went into the detention center with a bleeding lesion on his genitals. There was concern that it was cancer, but the DIHS turned down requests for a biopsy. Conal Doyle is the Castaneda family lawyer. How long do you believe the DIHS staff in the detention center knew or had a reasonable reason to suspect that he had cancer?

CONAL DOYLE: The second day he entered the facility of March 28th, 2006, a physician's assistant, Lieutenant Walker, specifically documented that he needed a urology consult and a biopsy to rule out cancer.

PELLEY: And how long was it before he got that biopsy?

DOYLE: He never got it during his detention.

PELLEY: Castaneda filed grievances with the Division of Immigration Health Services. He wrote, "I am in a considerable amount of pain, and I am in desperate need of medical attention." DIHS said that the surgery was elective and the government wouldn't pay for it. His request was denied for 10 months. Then, for reasons that aren't clear, he was simply released.

DOYLE: They released him on February 5th, 2007, and he sought care on his own outside the facility, and had that biopsy on February 8th. Cancer was discovered. His penis was amputated on February 14th.

PELLEY: But the cancer had already spread, and Francisco Castaneda died a year later.

DOYLE: The judge in this case, the federal district court has entered an order describing the care received by Castaneda as transcending negligence by miles and being beyond cruel and unusual.

PELLEY: Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined an interview, but ICE did send us this letter which says, in part: "The number of deaths per 100,000 is dramatically lower for ICE detainees than for US prison and jail populations." ICE goes on to say that, "The nation as a whole is experiencing severe shortages in qualified health professionals." In October, the Congress held hearings on immigrant health care, and a senior immigration official, Gary Mead, told the Congress that ICE provides, quote, "state of the art medical care and the best possible health care." End quote.

GARY MEAD: Last year, DIHS completed over 500,000 medical visits for the detainees in our custody. Many of our detainees receive almost daily attention, so it's an aggressive program, and we do everything possible to maintain the best quality of life for the detainees in our custody.

PELLEY: ICE declined to talk about the detainees in our story. In the case of Reverend Dantica, a government inspector general's report said that there was "no evidence of mistreatment or malfeasance" in his death. The Castaneda family is continuing to pursue its lawsuit. What does the DIHS owe prisoners like Francisco Castaneda?

DOYLE: Well, if the government's going to detain someone, it's very clear. The Supreme Court has said that they are entitled to reasonable medical care, and that includes medical care for any serious medical need.

PELLEY: You know that there are people watching this interview who are saying to themselves, 'Castaneda was an illegal immigrant. He had a drug conviction. The people of the United States owed him nothing.'

DOYLE: I'm sure there's people out there that think that. But that's not what the law is and that's not what a civilized society does. And, you know, if it's true that you judge the degree of civilization in a society by entering its prisons, the United States has a long way to go on this particular issue.

PELLEY: Two weeks ago, DIHS admitted to a federal court that it was medically negligent in its treatment of Francisco Castaneda. Now Congress is considering a bill to set new standards for immigrant detainee health care.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC