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Protests continue about the tens of thousands incarcerated for ICE

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Biden administration has cut the number of migrants that private prison corporations are holding by half. But contractors still incarcerate 28,000 people for ICE. That's the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. There have been protests. And now, after two deaths, immigrant advocates are calling for a crackdown on shoddy medical care. Colorado Public Radio's Matt Bloom reports.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No more.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: No more.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No more.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: No more.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking Spanish).

MATT BLOOM, BYLINE: A few dozen people protested outside of the ICE detention center in Aurora, Colo., last fall. It's run by the private company GEO Group. A 39-year-old Nicaraguan asylum seeker it held at the facility died a few weeks earlier. Melvin Ariel Calero-Mendoza was fleeing gang violence and looking for work when he entered the U.S. illegally last year.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Melvin Ariel Calero-Mendoza, within this building.

BLOOM: Calero-Mendoza hurt his foot in a soccer game inside the jail. An autopsy concluded that a lack of adequate medical care likely led to his death from a blood clot months later. Protester Alondra Gil-Gonzalez holds ICE and GEO Group responsible.

ALONDRA GIL-GONZALEZ: It's just not fair that people are having to be in such horrible conditions and be afraid of dying one day just because they want to experience this American dream that is kind of, like, advertised to every single one of us as we were a child.

BLOOM: A statement from GEO Group, which declined an interview request, says the company provided 24/7 access to medical care and that it's cooperating with an investigation into Calero-Mendoza's death. But advocates and experts say deaths continue in private jails under ICE, including in California in March.

PARVEEN PARMAR: There is something about the system that is leading to these repeated errors.

BLOOM: Parveen Parmar, University of Southern California physician, studied dozens of deaths in ICE detention between 2011 and 2018. She found in a majority of cases, nursing staff missed warning signs.

PARMAR: Often, the correct clinician is not available to see a patient when they're in distress. You know, it may be somebody who's well trained in their profession, but they're not the appropriate profession to actually see somebody who's ill.

BLOOM: ICE itself has found shoddy care in many private detention facilities. The agency declined an interview request, but last fall, a Department of Homeland Security investigation recommended shutting one down in New Mexico. Detainees, held by CoreCivic there, had to drink water from a mop sink, and staff shortages were so bad, some suicide watch shifts went unfilled. The facility remains open.

RON VITIELLO: It's unfortunate, obviously, right? But those are some of the consequence of, you know, what the angecy's charged to do.

BLOOM: Ron Vitiello was an acting director of ICE during the Trump administration. He says the agency has shut down the worst-of-the-worst facilities in recent years. But he says it's difficult for ICE to end contracts.

VITIELLO: It's something that could be remediated, we did that. If not, then we went on a path not to do business with those folks.

BLOOM: At least five states have passed limits on local governments contracting with private prisons for immigrant detention. But in New Mexico, which, like California, has a Democratic governor and majority state house, the effort failed.

JERRY ORTIZ Y PINO: You would have thought we were pulling down heaven and - you know, the pillars of heaven were being shaken by this.

BLOOM: State Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino says Democrats representing border districts opposed the bill due to security concerns.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking Spanish).

BLOOM: Protesters, like those outside the private jail in Aurora last fall, want ICE to abolish detention centers and let people live with families while waiting for immigration court dates.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Melvin Calero-Mendoza.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Presente.

BLOOM: Guadalupe Lopez is an asylum seeker who was released from detention last year.

GUADALUPE LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) He was just a person who was wanting to make a better life, and then he died at the hands of these people. And it was really hard for me and very sad.

BLOOM: An inspector general report on his case is expected to come out later this month. Lopez and others hope maybe there will be some accountability after that. For NPR News, I'm Matt Bloom.

(SOUNDBITE OF BON IVER SONG, "HOLOCENE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

I cover a wide range of issues within Colorado’s dynamic economy including energy, labor, housing, beer, marijuana, elections and other general assignment stories.