Improving Medical Care for Detained Immigrants

Inadequate medical care of immigrants detained by the U.S. government has led to deaths that could have been prevented. Additionally, many detainees (average stay 37.5 days) receive substandard care in detention, exacerbating existing chronic health conditions.

More than 350 facilities—eight federal facilities, and state and local jails—house detainees. They receive health care from Public Health Services officers or clinicians hired by local public health departments.

Current medical standards call for medical screening, physical exams and other care in a timely, prescribed manner. But the standards vary from location to location, are not codified and, therefore, are not legally binding.

Among the issues contributing to substandard treatment:

  • Delays in medical care
  • Untimely medical screening upon uptake
  • Denials of medical care for non-emergencies
  • Critical health care staffing shortage
  • Lack of accurate mortality and morbidity data

While two bills have been introduced in Congress to improve detainee health care, neither has passed. The authors recommend: “An independent office for oversight, legally enforceable standards and procedures, sanctions for non-compliance, strategies to minimize understaffing, a mortality data tracking system, and incentives to evaluate and improve the quality of care delivered to this population all must be codified in legislation.”