Why Did 21 People Die While Held in Immigration Detention?

October 25, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: ImmigrationImmigration ReformUndocumentedDetentionICE

Why Did 21 People Die While Held in Immigration Detention?

The immigration system must do better and recognize the human rights of even those who cross illegally.

The detention of illegal immigrants is an important part of immigration enforcement. Immigrants who are apprehended at the border or in the interior of the United States are detained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities until they are removed from the United States. In recent years, many reports have surfaced of immigrants who have died while in detention or shortly after being released to medical facilities for treatment. This problem has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. The rate of death in ICE detention facilities is an important metric of how humane those facilities are.

There are two primary pieces of data required to calculate the death rate in immigration detention: The number of people in detention each year and the number of deaths. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) runs all of the detention facilities and they provide the number of deaths and admissionsThe American Immigration Law Association provides some more recent numbers of deaths in detention, but I only include those that ICE also counts. The admissions into ICE detention facilities variable is closest to the number of unique individuals who were present in a detention facility in each year, so I use that number. Both variables run through the end of Fiscal Year (FY) 2020.

Twenty‐​one people died in immigration detention in FY2020, up from 8 in FY2019. During the same time, the number of admissions into ICE detention facilities fell from 510,854 to 177,391 (Table 1). The number of admissions to ICE detention facilities fell drastically because the U.S. government started immediately returning illegal immigrants apprehended at the border under Title 42 authority to halt the spread of COVID-19. The FY2020 death rate in ICE immigration detention was 11.8 per 100,000 admissions, a 656 percent increase from FY2019 and just below the highest ever recorded in 2004. 

Figure 1 shows the total number of ICE detentions and the total number of deaths in custody. The deaths in ICE detention facilities were highest during the George W. Bush administration at 91 total deaths with an average rate of 6.4 per 100,000 admissions per year. Those death rates fell rapidly after FY2004, the first full year when ICE was in operation, from 11.9 per 100,000 admissions to 2.9 per 100,000 admissions in 2008. The death rate rose 26 percent during the first year of the Obama Administration in 2009, then started falling again the next year with an average annual death rate of 2.3 per 100,000 admissions during his entire presidency. We only have data for four years of the Trump administration where the average annual death rate is 3.6 per 100,000 admissions.


This excellent study of death rates in ICE detention gives three reasons for why death rates fell so much during the Bush years and remained low thereafter. The first is that the length of time that immigrants spent in detention fell, which means there was less opportunity for each individual to die even though more were in detention. The second was that ICE increasingly relied on Secure Communities and local law enforcement to first arrest illegal immigrants and then transfer them to ICE. Local law enforcement agencies typically provided any healthcare that the immigrants needed before being transferred to ICE or, tragically, many of them died in local law enforcement custody. The third is that ICE medical policies and practices improved over time. Death rates in ICE detention increased in 2020 because there were many fewer admissions of young illegal immigrants and asylum seekers due to changes in other policies along the border and because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This article by Alex Nowrasteh originally appeared in the CATO at Liberty blog in 2020.

Image: Reuters.