Over Thanksgiving weekend, another person who was in US immigration detention died.
Amar Mergensana, a Russian national who had been detained at Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, was taken off life support on Saturday, according to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE stated he had attempted suicide on November 15; the cause of death was brain injury due to asphyxiation. NWDC Resistencia, a local advocacy group, reported that Mergensana was an asylum seeker who had been on hunger strike for months and had been placed in isolation in retaliation for his protest.
In September, I visited Northwest Detention Center to interview people who were on hunger strike. Viacheslav Poliakov, another Russian national, told me he had come to the US to seek asylum, presented himself at the San Ysidro port of entry, and was immediately detained. He was on hunger strike in protest of a bewildering and unjust asylum system, as well as the poor medical care in detention.
Poliakov said that after announcing the hunger strike with Mergensana and two other Russian men, he had been placed in isolation, denied important privileges such as access to the law library, and been threatened with force feeding. In a letter to ICE, we asserted that such treatment of hunger strikers was unwarranted and requested access for independent medical professionals to review the treatment of hunger strikers. We never received a response.
If Mergensana were placed in isolation for his hunger strike, that act of retaliation may have amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment. If he were suicidal and was struggling with a serious mental health condition, he should have been receiving meaningful mental health care. Independent medical experts reviewing ICE’s investigations into detainee deaths since 2010 for Human Rights Watch have found a disturbing pattern of suicides by people with psychosocial disabilities who have been held in isolation, as well as evidence of severely inadequate mental health care.
The same day ICE released the news of Mergensana’s death, an autopsy report on the death of a transgender woman who died in May was also released. According to the report, Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez, who had been detained in New Mexico, was likely physically abused in detention and died of severe, untreated dehydration.
As the Trump administration hunkers down on hardening the border against people seeking refuge, and as the administration seeks billions of dollars in Congressional funding to lock up asylum seekers and long-time US residents, Mergensana’s and Hernandez’s deaths demand a response that not only recognizes their dignity, but also the dignity of the 40,000-plus people locked up in immigrant jails every day. Congress should slash, not increase, funding for the abusive US immigration enforcement system and put into place deep, systemic reforms.