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Medical Neglect in Immigrant Prisons Reveals America at Its Worst

A spate of detainee deaths begs the question: what have we become?
 
 
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On the eve of the Beijing Olympics, while Bush was preparing to express his "deep concerns" over China's human rights record, Chinese immigrant Hiu Lui Ng was dying in the custody of our great nation's own U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. For months, according to the New York Times , 33-year-old Mr. Ng had complained of excruciating back pain. Officials accused him of faking it.

When a judge finally ordered that Mr. Ng be brought to a hospital, it was discovered that he had a fractured spine, cancer all over his body, and very little time to live. He died five days later, leaving behind a wife and two young sons.

Even as President Bush scolds the Chinese government for its human rights abuses, he is presiding over a humanitarian disaster in his own country. Millions of migrants, authorized and unauthorized, have come to the U.S. in recent years to exercise their unalienable rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." What many of those migrants have encountered is a society that is unrecognizable from its founding ideals.

If a U.S. citizen were to die of medical neglect in a Chinese prison it would be an international incident. The death of Mr. Ng is just business as usual for the Bush administration. Mr. Ng is just one of dozens of migrants in the past few years who have died from apparent medical neglect in ICE's sprawling detention system. In a case very similar to Mr. Ng's, Salvadoran migrant Francisco Castaneda went for almost a year in detention without treatment for a very painful penile lesion. When finally allowed to go to a hospital, Castaneda had to have his penis amputated, and he eventually died from cancer that had spread all over his body. A federal judge described the treatment of Castaneda as "beyond cruel and unusual".

While Bush was expressing his "firm opposition" the detention of dissidents in China, his administration was imprisoning migrant children in family detention centers like the Don Hutto Residential Facility. In 2007, then Kevin Yourdkhani, wrote this in crayon from Don Hutto: "I don't like to stay in this jail. I'm only nine years old. I want to go to my school in Canada. I'm sleeping beside the wall...his place is not good for me. I want to get out of the cell. Just pleace give visa for my family."

It's cases like these that have led many U.S. citizens like myself to ask, "What have we become?".

The inhospitable country that the U.S. has become for migrants is largely the result of decades of Democrats and Republicans falling over themselves to promote enforcement-heavy migration policies. From Bill Clinton's harsh reforms in 1996 to the out of control raids, detentions, and deportations of the Bush administration, it seems the nation's politicians cannot get enough of beating up on migrants. We are now at a point where authorized migrants can be deported for insignificant crimes like the jumping of a subway turnstile, and unauthorized migrants are subject to fear and exploitation that would make even some of the worst governments on the planet ashamed.

Ironically, it's these enforcement-heavy policies that are to blame for the ballooning unauthorized migrant population. As studies have shown, it's not the increasing numbers of unauthorized migrants coming in, but the inability of unauthorized migrants to get out that has forced millions to reside within the U.S for longer periods of time. The symbolism of a proposed wall along the U.S.'s southern border rings true. The U.S. is walling itself in, not keeping the rest of the world out.

I make the distinction between authorized and unauthorized migrants above only because there are nativists in the U.S. that make a living off saying they are "anti-ILLEGAL immigrant, not anti-immigrant", capital letters included. While nativists try to paint a fictional black and white picture of legal and illegal immigration, migrants like Mr. Ng are confronting the harsh reality of a broken system with blurry lines, and dying because of it. Mr. Ng, same migrant I described above, was 17 when he entered the U.S. legally on a tourist visa from Hong Kong. He fell out of legal status after he overstayed his visa but was in the process of getting a green card when ICE picked him up. Mr. Ng worked hard, trained himself in computer services, and had recently secured a contract for a company with offices in the Empire State Bulding. Mr. Ng should be living the American Dream but instead he has become a victim of the American nightmare. His wife and children, all U.S. citizens, no longer have a husband and father to take care of them.

These are the harsh realities nativists don't want you to see. For nativists there are only two types of migration: legal and illegal, one good and one bad. Forget the fact that the distinction between legal and illegal didn't exist during our grandparents' times. Nativists don't want you to see that "illegal aliens" frequently sit around the family dinner table with legal migrants and U.S. citizens, while the U.S. government is spending billions to tear these families apart. Nativists don't want you to know about the complicated laws that thrust migrants in and out of legal status all of the time. Nativists don't want you to learn about the children migrants leave behind, two-thirds of whom are U.S. citizens, who suffer from economic hardship and psychological trauma when their parents are picked up on worksite raids. All of this, and Bush has "deep concerns" over human rights in China?

Nativists will read this and proclaim me to be an "amnesty" and "open borders" advocate, but nativists oppose anything that puts a human face on the destructive and unrealistic policies they support. The latest nativist craze, "attrition through enforcement" is basically a plan to inflict mass terror and human suffering upon millions of unauthorized migrants. Since nativists can't deport 12 million people, they've decided the next best course of action is to make migrants so miserable that they leave on their own. You know the U.S. migration debate has gotten out of hand when horrific policies like "attrition through enforcement" have entered the mainstream political discourse.

I am not an "open borders" advocate. I am just appalled that people are being treated like this in the United States of America. Migrant advocates will argue that racism is to blame for all of these abuses. Racism certainly plays a part in all of this, but the truth is migrants are suffering mostly because they had the misfortune of being born on a different piece of the earth than U.S. citizens did. The only real solution to this crisis is to provide opportunities in the countries migrants are fleeing from. Until we live in a world where people migrate out of want, instead of need, we have to treat migrants as humanely as possible. Nativists live in a fantasy world where you can deport away all your problems and the interests of U.S. citizens have to be promoted above all others. The world we live in is interconnected. The interests of U.S. citizens are meshed with the interests of migrants from around the world and the countries that they come from. We ignore these fundamental truths at our own peril.

If President Bush really wants to be in a position to denounce China's government, he should consider a moratorium on raids, detentions, and deportations, until the U.S. enacts comprehensive, practical, and humane migration reform. Perhaps then he won't have to tell the world about the benefits of freedom and democracy. Migrants will tell the world for him.

Kyle Hussein de Beausset is the founder of Citizen Orange and The Sanctuary .