ICE Violated Its Internal Medical Standard Likely Leading To Many Deaths, Damning New Study Reports


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockJul 15 2021, 12:05 UTC
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Washington, D.C. USA. Image Credit: JHVEPhoto/

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Washington, D.C. USA. Image Credit: JHVEPhoto/

A new study on the deaths among individuals in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody found that the federal agency, which was created in 2003, violated its own internal medical care standards in 78 percent of those cases.

The findings, published in JAMA Network Open, showed that in 43 of the 55 death reports available for review there were violations of the ICE Performance-Based National Detention Standards. These deaths occurred between 2011 and 2018 and occurred in people with low burdens of preexisting disease.


Their average age was 42.7 years and 85.5 percent of the people who died in ICE custody were men. They had spent on average over 15 years in the US prior to their detention but only 39 days in custody before they died. Eight people died by suicide while in custody.  

“These results suggest that additional oversight and external evaluation of practices related to medical and psychiatric care within ICE facilities are needed,” the authors found in the analysis.  

The team reports that in 29 deaths there were "markedly abnormal vital signs" such as abnormal heart rate, blood pressure, or oxygen level. In several instances, ICE personnel did not administer supplemental oxygen as advised by a physician and did not document abnormal oxygen levels. They also did not notify physicians of low oxygen levels.  


"The ICE medical care team minimized or dismissed signs and symptoms of critical illness," first author Dr Molly Grassini, a physician at the Keck School of Medicine, the University of Southern California, said in a statement. "It is possible that these deaths might have been avoided if these concerns had been addressed."

The team said they knew of several people who died within days of being released from ICE custody but given the timings, these cases didn’t fall under the mandatory death review process. This might imply that the work undercounts mortality rates in ICE detention facilities nationwide.

"Facilities with recurrent violations should undergo targeted rehabilitation and close monitoring. Those that are unable to meet predetermined benchmarks and fail to implement acceptable corrective action should be faced with penalties including possible closure," explained senior and corresponding author Parveen Parmar, an associate professor of clinical emergency medicine at the Keck School of Medicine. "These processes are vital to ensuring that the dignity and health of the detained population are respected."


As of July 8, 2021, there are 27,217 people in ICE detention facilities nationwide. Almost 80 percent of these have no criminal record, and many more have only minor offenses.

 This Week in IFLScience

Receive our biggest science stories to your inbox weekly!

  • tag
  • death,

  • government,

  • immigration