In our care Menendez presses for detainee health care

Allegedly beaten and tortured by Chinese authorities, a Tibetan monk boarded a plane and flew to the United States to seek asylum. But he lacked the proper documents to stay here, so the monk is now being held at a United State Federal Detention Center in Elizabeth.

His was one of the cases U.S. Senator Robert Menendez encountered during his recent visit to the center, part of an effort to draw attention to legislation he and other federal legislators believe is necessary to preserve the heath of hundreds of people detained in New Jersey and the Northeastern United States whose situations are being reviewed by the federal government.

In making his tour of the facility in late July, Menendez said he was concerned about the health of people in detention centers around the country, saying that these people are being held only because their status has not been determined.

“These are not illegal aliens,” he said. “Some of these people are found to have valid reasons for coming into our country, and yet in some cases, they are not getting the medical attention they deserve.”

Menendez, who has recently returned from reviewing international concerns in Greece, toured his own backyard to gather information that would allow him to press for the passage of legislation to assure that the immigrants being held get the medical attention they need.

Menendez said his legislation was prompted partly due to recent national reports that showed more than 66 deaths in detention centers around the country.

One detainee from Guinea fell on the floor and was convulsing. Instead of seeking medical help for the person, the staff strapped him up.

“They thought he was acting up,” Menendez said. “He was foaming at the mouth and he eventually went to a hospital in a coma.”

Standardized health procedures

Detainees, he said, often fail to get the treatment they need in a timely matter. Sometimes people are inappropriately treated based on a diagnosis made over the telephone.

“A detention center should not be a death sentence,” Menendez said.

Menendez’s bill would provide standardized health care procedures for people held for immigration questions, regardless of whether the facility is run by the government or a private contractor.

The federal government currently operates nine detention centers, accounting for about 12 to 13 percent of the 32,000 people currently in detention nationwide.

“Health care needs to be consistent,” Menendez said. “Currently, it is helter-skelter.”

His bill would require the federal Department of Homeland Security to set up procedures for providing timely and effective medical services and to report deaths of detainees to Congress and the Office of the Inspector General.

Menendez said these detainees differ from so-called illegal aliens in that these people are held in administrative custody until their legal status can be determined. Some will be deported, some will get asylum, and others have a right to be here but only need to prove it.

“We believe that the federal government has the obligation to preserve the basic human rights of those who are in our custody,” he said.

While technically the government should be providing adequate medical services, he said, his legislation would specifically require that medical care be provided as a matter of law.

Saw man in pain

In meeting with some of the detainees, Menendez said he saw evidence of the lack of health care, noting that one detainee’s face was swollen and the person was clearly in pain.

“He would bleed out of the nose every morning,” Menendez said. “The doctors said he had a serious infection. But when we asked about it, we were told that the facility doesn’t take care of dental problems. This might not have been life-threatening now, but if the infection gets into the blood and goes to the brain, the person could die.”

He said detainees should receive treatment from a professional, someone on site to make determinations of care. Special guideline areas are also needed for people who might come into the facility with special problems.

“The health care of these detainees needs to be determined by a doctor, not a clerk,” he said.

Menendez said several key senators have signed onto his bill, including Sen. Ted Kennedy (prior to his current illness) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

“We’re shopping it around to some Republican senators. Some have expressed interest in this becoming a bi-partisan effort,” Menendez said.

“Health care needs to be consistent. Currently it is helter-skelter.” – U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez


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