DHS Investigating Death of Detained Honduran Immigrant

Individual Allegedly Denied Access to Medication And Kept for Days in Frigid, Overcrowded Border Patrol Cell Designed to Hold Detainees for 12 Hours

Honduran national Lelis Rodriguez, 50, died on July 31 of a cerebral hemorrhage at a hospital in Harlingen, a small town on the Texas border.

At the time, he was in the custody of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to an ICE press release. He was apprehended crossing the border in Hidalgo, Texas, on July 16 and transferred to ICE custody on July 22, the press release notes. Rodriguez suffered a massive stroke a week later, on July 29, and was rushed to the Valley Baptist Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead two days later.

The South Texas media dutifully reported his death in short clips that parroted the ICE press release. But no one questioned the missing six days — the time between Rodriguez apprehension at the border and his transfer to ICE custody.

Those missing six days, however, open a door to a dark secret of the US immigration system that has long been suppressed. This nation, in its zeal to seal its borders and get tough on those deemed to be trespassing on America’s manifest destiny, has created an immigrant detention system that treats human beings (men, women and children) like cattle — locking them away in massively overcrowded holding cells where they are forced to exist for days, even weeks, in squalid, frigid conditions without access to showers, clothing, beds, adequate food or medical care.

For Lelis Rodriguez, it appears that system proved to be fatal.

The missing six days in his life matter, given US Border Patrol, which is part of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), does not have facilities designed for incarcerating individuals for longer than 12 hours. CBP “hold rooms,” as they are called, have “no beds; a hold room is not designed for sleeping,” states the CBP Security Policy and Procedures Handbook.

In the case of Rodriguez, Narco News sources confirm that he was, in fact, apprehended by Border Patrol agents in Texas and held at the agency’s Weslaco Station for three days (July 16-18), then transferred to the Harlingen Station for another three days (July 19-21). The two Texas Border Patrol stations are designed to hold about 300 detainees each for processing, but, sources contend, while Rodriguez was incarcerated, the holding areas were jam packed with up to three times that many people, some of whom had been incarcerated for as long as 20 days — and many, like Rodriguez, were moved every several days from one Border Patrol station to another.

In addition, source tell Narco News, there were close to 200 children, ranging in age from less than one year old to 17, who were in custody at the Weslaco and Harlingen Border Patrol stations during the period Rodriquez was detained there, including one 3-year-old who was kept in a holding cell for at least a week.

After being detained by Border Patrol for six days — in a holding area designed for a stay of 12 hours — Rodriguez was turned over to ICE, which housed him at the Brooks County Detention Center in Falfurrias, Texas. Private prison company LCS Corrections Services Inc. owns and operates the Brooks facility and houses detainees for ICE as well as other federal agencies, such as the US Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prisons.

Rodriguez on July 29 was transferred to a deportation staging center in Port Isabel, Texas, where he collapsed after the blood vessels in his brain essentially exploded. He was rushed to a hospital and died two days later. Rodriguez had high blood pressure and was on hypertension medicine for the condition — medicine he had with him when Border Patrol apprehended him, sources allege.

Despite this fact, and despite asking for his medication, which sources insist was in the possession of both Border Patrol and later officials at Brooks after he was transferred there, Rodriguez was not given his medication.

DHS Investigation

The details matter in this case because Rodriguez’ treatment while detained in the US was a major factor in his death, it appears. In fact, Carol Barahona, a Honduran Consulate agent in Houston, confirms that US authorities are now investigating Rodriguez’ death.

“This case is being investigated by DHS [the Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency of both ICE and CBP],” Barahona told Narco News. “This is a very sensitive case, and we want to give a response to the family [provide answers], and it is important to all the people of Honduras to assure people are [treated properly] when in [US] detention centers.”

Narco News earlier this week contacted officials with Border Patrol, ICE and the Brooks County Detention Center seeking comment for this story.

Daniel Tirado, a spokesman for Border Patrol, said he would try to “see what I can get for you, but no promises.” He did not provide a comment by press time. ICE spokeswoman Nina Pruenda also wasn’t available for comment. Her voicemail message indicated she was out of the office due to the federal government shutdown and wouldn’t be available until the “federal funding hiatus” is over.

Likewise, Richard Harbison, media spokesman for Louisiana-based LCS Corrections Services, was unavailable for comment. Narco News also attempted to contact Michael Striedel, LCS’ executive vice president for facility operations, but was told he wasn’t taking any calls.

Jodi Goodwin, a veteran immigration attorney who practices in Harlingen, Texas, told Narco News that the allegations of detention-cell overcrowding and squalid conditions revealed by Narco News sources do mirror her experiences in dealing with clients caught up in that system.

“As far as commenting on the factual context of the [allegations] .... yes, this happens a lot,” Goodwin said in an email to Narco News.

More from her email:

I do not have the statistics, but I can tell you anecdotally that my clients are often housed for days at the Border Patrol stations before they are moved to a detention facility [such as Brooks]. They are cold, sometimes wet, hungry (bologna sandwiches and high-fructose corn syrup drinks are all they get), kept in extremely cold temperatures, no beds, blankets, or clothes to keep them warm. [The Border Patrol holding cells are allegedly kept cold to help suppress the stench caused by detaining large numbers of people for days on end without providing them access to showers or clean clothes. Detainees refer to the holding areas as “refrigeradores,” or refrigerators.]

During the time they are there, they are lost in the system because no one can find them. The only way a person can be located is if you happen to get a decent officer on the phone and they will tell you whether the person is being detained or not. They don't appear on the Detainee Locator System during this time at all. I get calls from family members who have not been able to find their loved ones for days only to find out they have been at a Border Patrol station all that time.

I am not aware of the BP protocol on how long they are supposed to hold someone in their facility. I suspect this is the most important piece of the puzzle because it is apparently causing the continual shuffling of people [between Border Patrol stations].

Rules of the Game

A report issued by ICE in 2009, makes clear that its rules for holding-area detainees are quite strict.

From the report:

ICE operates two types of temporary facilities: holding areas and staging locations [for deportation]. Both holding areas and staging locations are often co-located in field offices and subfield offices. ICE detention standards dictate that aliens may be held in a holding area for up to 12 hours and in a staging location up to 16 hours. These facilities do not provide sleeping quarters or shower facilities.

Although Border Patrol holding cells should adhere to the ICE rules as a matter of departmental consistency, since both are under the umbrella of DHS, it appears that Border Patrol essentially makes up its own rules, according to a Border Patrol policy document made public via a Freedom of Information Act request.

From that FOIA document, dated Jan. 31, 2008, and titled U.S. Border Patrol Policy:

Whenever possible, a detainee should not be held for more than 12 hours. Every effort will be made to promptly process, transfer, transport, remove or release those in custody as appropriate and as operationally feasible. … The Sector Staff Duty Officer must be notified when the detention period exceeds 72 hours [three days], and the Staff Duty Officer or their designee shall make every effort to promptly move the detainee(s).

Remember, according to Narco News sources, some detainees were kept up to 20 days, and transferred back and forth every few days between the Border Patrol Weslaco and Harlingen holding cells — which, according to Border Patrol’s own “policy and procedures handbook,” have “no beds” and are “not designed for sleeping.”

Border Patrol’s policy on dispensing medication also seems designed to fail, especially in conditions where holding cells are jam packed with up to three times the number of detainees they are designed to handle.

More from the U.S. Border Patrol Policy document:

Border Patrol Agents will not administer or inject any medication unless they are certified EMTs [emergency medical technicians] or paramedics practicing under the direction of a medical director and the administration of such medicine is within their cope of practices and is authorized under the protocols of their medical practice. Medication prescribed in the United States [which would rarely be the case for immigrants apprehended crossing the border who have medication with them], in a properly identified container, with the specific dosage indicated, may be self-administered [by the detainee] under the supervision of a Border Patrol agent. Administration of prescribed medication, medical assistance … will be noted on the Alien Booking Record. Medications will not be left in the possession of the detainee. They will be secured separately, preferably with the detainee’s property.

And that is precisely where Rodriguez’ medication was later found, with his property, sources indicate. It was never administered to him during his time in detention.

It seems clear from the Border Patrol policy that there is very little incentive for Border Patrol agents to assure medication is administered regularly and properly, given agents are prohibited in almost all cases from taking care of the matter themselves and have to track down a certified medical professional to administer the meds while also overseeing holding cells designed to contain a maximum of 300 people that may well be packed with nearly 1,000 detainees.

In the Rio Grande Valley sector, which includes Weslaco and Harlingen, Texas, Border Patrol data show that the number of “illegal alien apprehensions” jumped from 59,243 in fiscal 2011 to 97,762 in fiscal 2012 — a byproduct of the success of the political and pecuniary special interests who favor a more punitive immigration system.

But this huge surge in apprehensions coupled with substandard detention facilities and oversight is fostering a culture of negligence and abuse that is putting lives at risk, sources insist. 

Another Vicitm

Rodriguez, by the way, is not the only detainee who met a tragic fate after moving through the Weslaco-Harlingen-Brooks detention pipeline. Another immigrant, also from Central America, was treated to the same sausage grind this summer, sources tell Narco News. He ultimately died in a hospital in Corpus Christi in early June, less than two months prior to Rodriguez’ death, an ICE press release indicates.

Federico Mendez-Hernandez of Guatemala was only 28. The cause of his death: Rabies — a disease typically resulting from an animal bite with symptoms in the acute phase that include hallucinations; delusions; aggressive behavior, such as biting and thrashing; high fever; and hyper-fear of water and bright lights. It seems the medical personal charged with conducting the mandatory medical exam administered to ICE detainees upon their arrival at facilities like Brooks missed some big clues, if the exam was even conducted.

A December 2006 report from the DHS Office of Inspector General indicates that possibility is not out of the realm of consideration:

The ICE Detention Standard for Medical Care requires all new arrivals to receive initial medical and mental health screening, including tuberculosis screening, immediately upon arrival by a health care provider or an officer trained to perform this function. The health care provider must also conduct a health appraisal and physical examination on each detainee within 14 days of arrival.

We reviewed 101 of 115 requested medical files for compliance with initial medical screening at 4 of the facilities. Eight detainees did not receive the required initial medical screening, and 14 files did not contain sufficient documentation to make a determination. Also, we reviewed 111 of 122 requested medical files for compliance with the physical examination requirement, 15 detainees did not receive the required examination, and 11 files contained insufficient documentation to make a determination.

Likewise, the latest publicly available review of the Brooks County Detention Center, conducted by ICE in 2007 and made public through a Freedom of Information Act request, indicates that Brooks was cited as being “deficient” with respect to properly documenting medical examinations of ICE detainees held in special management units.

“… Medical staff conducts visits but has no formal documentation,” the ICE report notes. “Facility administrator will address health care documentation with medical staff.”

Stay tuned….

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