By Rita Omokha
Complaints from detainees and advocates reveal a disturbing pattern of physical abuse and ignoring medical needs
In August 2001, Bel’Or, a native of Congo, arrived at Philadelphia international airport with one suitcase, a visiting visa, and a dream to study at an American university. In the two decades that followed, he learned English and received a bachelor’s in finance from Temple University on a student visa. Then one night in 2018, as he returned from spending time with friends to mark the first anniversary of his wife’s death, he was arrested by police for a DUI. On 27 January 2020, Bel’Or (identified here by his first name only, for his protection) was placed in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) custody on non-deportable charges.
Once detained, Bel’Or, who had long enjoyed his freedom as one of the 4.6 million Black immigrants in America, joined a new group: the more than 4,500 Black immigrants inside Ice facilities. Ice’s database lists about 25,000 detainees nationwide, but does not maintain reliable inmate demographics. Non-profits such as Freedom for Immigrants (FFI) and Black Alliance for Just Immigration estimate that roughly 20% of Black immigrants are waiting for deportation.
Advocacy organizations like FFI also say that this demographic experiences higher rates of deportation; sexual, physical, medical, and psychological abuses in detention; and solitary confinement.
After 16 months in custody in York county jail in South Carolina, in July 2021, Bel’Or was transferred to Ice detention at Glades county detention in Moore Haven, Florida, where he first learned about filing abuse-related complaints with FFI through its detention hotline. FFI fields close to 600 calls a week, and the team said the bulk of calls received – one in three – are detainees from Black-majority countries.
In the last month alone, FFI has received more than 2,100 complaints nationwide. The most common abuse-related ones are anti-Black discriminatory actions, ranging from forced strip-searches and unprovoked pepper-spraying to prolonged solitary confinement and critical medical treatment negligence.
“There are so many inequities inside of the system,” FFI’s national hotline manager, Amanda Diaz, said. “It’s because the immigration system is rooted in xenophobia and racism that these everyday injustices have become a norm and have been swept under as day-to-day procedure. It’s also connected to a larger view that the United States, and I think the average American, have on Black immigrants as disposable beings, and people who are less than human.”
During his detention at Glades, Bel’Or called FFI many times. He complained about medical neglect for his pre-existing conditions of hepatitis C, hyperlipidemia, hypertension and diabetes. FFI filed claims with the Department of Homeland Security on his behalf. One complaint includes multiple allegations dating back to Bel’Or’s first detention in 2020. The complaint noted that instead of giving him the designated diabetes food tray, as required by Ice’s policy, the Armor Correctional Health Services – Glades county’s medical subcontractor – increased his insulin dosage. Medical professionals who co-signed the complaint said this could lead to diabetic ketoacidosis – a potentially fatal condition. The letter also noted that long-term uncontrolled diabetes placed him at a higher risk of suffering from severe illness or death.
This level of involvement with Ice detainees is increasingly common for FFI. The group said such cases can be challenging because most of the immigrants they work with are not always candidates for deportation or on a path to citizenship, with some detainees’ records indicating they are neither a danger to society nor a flight risk. This also means those with pending cases for citizenship or other legal status appeals are left in limbo, making it harder, if not impossible, to petition their case.
This is precisely what happened with Bel’Or. Before his wife, a US citizen, died from a brain aneurysm, she applied for his permanent residency with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, when Bel’Or worked as a personal assistant for the Democratic Republic of Congo embassy in DC on a diplomatic visa. However, since his 2018 arrest, the green card application process was stalemated and later denied. His lawyer has requested to reopen the case.
“I’ve been in this country for over 21 years,” Bel’Or said, “and I always made sure I was never out of status.”
Bel’Or’s struggles navigating the immigration system since his detention have become emblematic of the wrongdoings at Ice facilities across America.
A pattern of medical neglect
When Ice stopped using Glades in March, after mounting civil rights abuses, inhumane treatments, and federal law violations involving regularly deleting its facilities’ surveillance footage, Bel’Or was transferred again, this time to Krome Service Processing Center in Miami, Florida. Krome and Glades are two of 39 detention centers across the country the American Civil Liberties Union advocated to shut down, writing a letter to the Biden administration outlining growing human rights violations.
At Krome, Bel’Or, age 41, has experienced the same “compromised access to counsel and external medical care” and “egregious … inhumane treatment or conditions” the letter to DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas outlined.
Bel’Or said his most recent complaints relate to persistent pain from a tooth infection that has gone unresolved since he first entered Ice custody in 2020. “It’s frustrating,” Bel’Or said last month from Krome. “They have no compassion for you.”
Florida’s ACLU deputy legal director, Katie Blankenship, said such cases happen regularly. “People are walking into Ice detention with open wounds or tumors on their bodies, abscess, teeth that are infected, and they will go months without treatment,” she said. “That is the system that they have to begin with – you’re already set up to fail.”
This negligence is a direct violation of Ice’s own National Detention Standards, which outline, in part, that all facilities must provide detainees with “medical, dental and mental health care.”
Bel’Or also noticed another trend: officers riling detainees into a fight that would land them in solitary confinement – a retaliation technique that has been well documented. A 2020 Punishment and Society Journal study found that Black immigrants are six times more likely to spend time in isolation.
“The guards are very aggressive – physically aggressive – and some of them are verbally aggressive,” Bel’Or said. “They try to put me in a situation where it’s like they’re provoking you. It’s like they enjoy it.”
‘Dismissive and bullying behavior’
Guards have increasingly targeted Black immigrants in Ice custody since 1996 when Bill Clinton’s administration mandated the detention of “illegal aliens” – undocumented immigrants – with the passing of the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.
“Those laws increased the pipeline between the criminal legal system and the immigration system,” said Jesse Franzblau, a senior policy analyst with the National Immigrant Justice Center. People of color, especially African Americans, were already discriminated against more than other demographics with over-policing. Clinton’s bill exacerbated such policing disparities, now targeting Black immigrants for Ice detention and deportation.
A March complaint filed by FFI against Krome to DHS shows that discriminatory conduct has persisted for Black detainees. And recent claims from May and June inside the facility from detainees like Bel’Or indicate it’s deepening.
Last month, a Krome detainee reported seeing an officer brutally beat another man for not “moving out of the way” fast enough. The man now uses a cane. When the man who saw the attack later tried to advocate on the assaulted man’s behalf, he said he was verbally assaulted by a guard and thrown into solitary confinement.
Around the same time, another Krome inmate reported seeing another man being beaten by a guard until he became unconscious. Afterward, the detainee said the guards did little more than cover the man with a blanket.
Yet another person incarcerated at Krome reported that when officers conducted a shakedown of one unit, they slammed a detainee’s face against glass (at Krome, there are windows and glass panes embedded in the walls) and later threw him into solitary confinement because he asked guards to be careful with his legal documents.
Blankenship, the ACLU legal director, said from recent visits to the Miami facility, she concluded that assault reports have worsened after the influx in population from the Glades transfer. From January through June, at its peak, the population increased by close to 100 detainees, reaching 400 of its 511 maximum capacity.
“You hear a lot of racial slurs. You hear a lot of dismissive and bullying behavior targeted specifically when people of color are asking for medical attention or have special dietary needs,” she said. For example, “we work with a lot of Jamaican immigrants [and] they will request the Rastafari diet, and they are ridiculed for that. They’re definitely not provided what they’re requesting.”
Rolling Manning, a Jamaican immigrant transferred from Glades, said he almost died in Ice custody.
First detained in 2020, the 50-year-old suffered monoxide poisoning from a gas leak in the kitchen at Glades in November. “While working [the day of the gas leak], I began feeling sick,” Manning recalled. “My chest was tightening up, and my breath was getting shorter. I was nauseated, weak and my hands and feet began to tremble.” Manning was transported to a nearby hospital, Hendry Regional Medical Center, chained at his waist and feet. “My head was pounding, and I brought up blood every time I coughed,” he said. “I was going in and out of consciousness.”
The next day, still feeling sick, Manning said he was abruptly discharged. During his transport to Krome – a 1.5-hour drive south from the hospital – he begged Ice officers to use the bathroom, but they “refused to stop”, he said. “I could no longer hold on any longer and had to go on myself.” Since his arrival at Krome, he said he has only been given Tylenol as he recovers.
An internal investigation by the Glades county sheriff’s office into the poisoning incident later found several officials responsible, calling the leak a “careless” event that “quickly developed to a full-blown mass casualty”.
A release petition filed by Manning in February to Ice outlines, alongside medical reports, his chronic respiratory problems because of the exposure at Glades and what he describes as persistent medical negligence at Krome. Manning also said he feared deportation because he is bisexual and has previously been assaulted over his sexuality in Jamaica. The petition remains unanswered.
‘They just tryna break you’
Wearied by the continuing abuse, some detainees have banded together and taken matters into their own hands by coordinating mass hunger strikes. When one group in Krome did this recently, protesting cruel treatments, they were handcuffed and placed in isolation for two weeks, according to complaints submitted to FFI.
Luis was one of those who participated in a peaceful hunger strike at Krome. Before turning to that extreme measure, he said he had submitted numerous complaints against guards and staff for denying him critical medical care for his diagnosis of first-degree atrioventricular block, a life-threatening heart condition. Despite recommendations from outside medical professionals, Luis said he failed to receive treatment. Instead, the migrant from the Dominican Republic said he was placed in isolation each of the four times he went on a hunger strike.
“It’s like being in hell, you’re just looking at the wall,” he said of his time in solitary confinement – in all, 60 days. One time, he recalled the guards punched him when trying to force-feed him. “It’s horrible, they just tryna break you,” he recalled.
After multiple petitions and working with advocacy groups, he was released in April. His lawyer, Stephanie Norton, said it took a concerted effort from his family, community members, and Luis’s persistent advocacy. “I was so impressed at his strength and ability to stand up for himself,” Norton said, “and to never give up, even though that’s all that Ice wanted him to do.” Luis and his lawyer are still fighting his deportation charge and to regain his permanent resident status. He said he still fears further retaliation from Ice.
Asked about such complaints, a spokesperson for Ice said the agency is “committed to ensuring that all those [in] custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments under appropriate conditions of confinement.”
The Ice spokesperson didn’t outline the agency’s investigation or escalation process for reported claims, only saying the agency takes all “allegations of misconduct very seriously – personnel are held to the highest standards of professional and ethical behavior, and when a complaint is received, it is investigated thoroughly to determine veracity and ensure comprehensive standards, which Ice is required to follow, are strictly maintained, and enforced.”
Blankenship said that in her experience when complaints are filed with Ice or DHS by detainees or on their behalf, especially Black detainees, they remain largely ignored. “The review process is very slow,” she said. “We rarely, if ever, receive results of their investigations.”
Though Florida’s ACLU detention database lists Krome as having the highest reported violations in the state, disturbing human rights charges targeting Black immigrants are not limited to those detention facilities.
Before his deportation last month from Texas’ Prairieland Detention – another detention center the ACLU called out for closure – a Liberian detainee named Romeo Konneh had filed numerous complaints of medical neglect at the many Ice facilities across the nation where he was held, including Batavia, New York, and Bergen county, New Jersey. In one complaint sent to DHS on his behalf by three advocacy groups, he said he wasn’t being treated for his pre-existing conditions, HPV and diabetes. “Whenever I go and see the doctor, the doctor refuses to treat me,” he said. “The doctor once told me that ‘if you don’t like the way that I’m talking to you, go back to your country.’”
In December, 16 civil rights organizations, including Freedom for Immigrants and Black Alliance for Just Immigration, sent DHS a letter with evidence of life-endangering harms and anti-Black racism at facilities “under the jurisdiction of the New Orleans Ice Field Office.” One of those facilities, Winn Correctional Center, remains open even after DHS’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties recommended that it be shut down, concluding it has a “culture and conditions that can lead to abuse, mistreatment, and discrimination,” including findings of mold, pests, and poor medical care. (The Ice spokesperson did not comment directly about the Winnfield, Louisiana, facility.)
Patrice Lawrence, executive director of UndocuBlack – which advocates for Black and undocumented people, many of whom have either been in Ice custody, or have family members who have been in detention – said human and civil rights allegations continue to go unresolved, even when sites are found to be in violation, because “there’s no accountability” within Ice and DHS.
“Nobody believes us when we say they don’t treat us like humans, and they grab us and they abuse us and they hurl slurs at us and they do not treat us with any form of dignity, much less compassion,” she said. “It’s a part of who America is. And it is especially a part of what policing looks like in this country. And Ice is just an extension of the police force with even more power. Because they’re dealing with migrants who have less rights.”
Before his arrest, Bel’Or had planned to enroll in business school, having just passed the GMAT. Now his greatest worry is being deported without much notice, as he’s seen with other detainees, leaving his two American-born children – an 11-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son – without parents.
His most pressing and imminent fear, though, remains his daily life and uncertainties in Ice custody, where it seems the guards don’t see the detainees as humans. “For them, even if you’re here legally, they want to get you out of ‘their country’,” Bel’Or said. “They don’t want to know you as a person. They don’t have any humanity.”