Press Releases

Smith, Murray, Cantwell and Jayapal Call for Answers and Transparency in Death of Asylum Seeker at Northwest Detention Center

Washington, DC – This week, Congressman Adam Smith (WA-09) led a letter with Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (WA-07) to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) demanding answers surrounding the recent death of Mergensana Amar, a Russian asylum seeker detained in the custody of ICE at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. In the letter, the lawmakers call for transparency and a thorough understanding of the circumstances and actions taken leading up to Mr. Amar’s death.

The Members write in part, “The federal government has a solemn duty to care for and protect those within its custody, including individuals detained by ICE… We request that you provide information to our offices regarding the circumstances surrounding the treatment and care for Mr. Amar, and what improvements you will make to avoid other similar tragedies in the future.”

The full text of the letter can be found below and here.

Acting Director Ronald D. Vitiello

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Department of Homeland Security

500 12th Street SW

Washington, D.C. 20536

 

Dear Acting Director Vitiello: 

 

We are deeply saddened by the recent death of Mergensana Amar, a Russian asylum seeker detained in the custody of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington.

 

The federal government has a solemn duty to care for and protect those within its custody, including individuals detained by ICE. News of Mr. Amar’s death follows a report condemning conditions in ICE’s Adelanto Detention Center in California.[1] The report recounts nooses found hanging in cells, lack of adequate mental health services, and access to medical care at the facility.[2] In light of this report, we are particularly alarmed by tragic news of Mr. Amar’s suicide, and are concerned with ICE practice and protocol for preventing such deaths moving forward.

 

We request that you provide information to our offices regarding the circumstances surrounding the treatment and care for Mr. Amar, and what improvements you will make to avoid other similar tragedies in the future. Please provide the following information and answers to questions by Tuesday December 11, 2018:

  • A copy of any detainee death reviews and reports related to Mr. Amar.
  • A detailed timeline of where Mr. Amar was located within the Northwest Detention Center (segregation/solitary confinement, general population, health unit, or elsewhere), and rationale for each instance in which he was moved.
  • A copy of any review of Mr. Amar’s placement in segregation, as required by the September 2013 ICE Segregation Memo.
  • A detailed timeline of exactly what medical services were provided, when they were provided, and the results of any medical evaluations.
  • A copy of the court order ICE obtained for involuntary hydration as well as any records that indicate how ICE used this order.
  • ICE stated that Mr. Amar “remained in good physical health prior to this incident” – by what measures was he determined to be in good physical health? Who determined that he was in good physical health?
  • Did ICE conduct mental health checks? How often, by whom, and in what manner?
  • At any point in time, did anyone question whether Mr. Amar was a threat to his own safety? If so, at what point was this determined by ICE and what was the rationale? If a determination was made that he was a threat to his own safety, what actions were taken and procedures followed to prevent Mr. Amar from harming himself?
  • While he was on hunger strike, was Mr. Amar threatened with force feeding? Was Mr. Amar denied privileges, such as access to the law library, telephone, television, or other privileges while he was on hunger strike?
  • Based on your death review findings related to Mr. Amar, what changes, improvements to policy and protocol, and best practices will you implement to ensure the health and safety of detainees, and to prevent similar health related tragedies from occurring again.

 

It is imperative that there be transparency and a thorough understanding of the circumstances and actions taken leading up to Mr. Amar’s death. We look forward to hearing from you promptly.

 

Sincerely,

 

Washington, DC – Following the death of Mergansana Amar, a Russian asylum seeker detained in the custody of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington, Congressman Adam Smith (WA-09), Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Patty Murray (D-WA) and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (WA-07) sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General requesting a comprehensive inspection and review of the conditions at the NWDC and an investigation into the death of Mr. Amar.      

The Members write in part, “There is a clear pattern that indicates a severe lack of oversight and repeated failures to make sufficient improvements by ICE and private contractors operating detention facilities… It’s vital that we understand what happened and what improvements must be made to address safety and health risks that could otherwise lead to similar tragic incidents in the future.”

The full text of the letter can be found below and here.

 

The Honorable John V. Kelly

Acting Inspector General

Office of the Inspector General

U.S. Department of Homeland Security

245 Murray Lane SW

Washington, D.C. 20528

 

Dear Acting Inspector General Kelly: 

We write to urge the Office of Inspector General (OIG) to conduct a thorough investigation of the death of Mergansana Amar, a Russian asylum seeker detained in the custody of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington. In addition, we urge you to conduct a comprehensive inspection and review of the conditions at the NWDC, including potential retaliation against detainee whistleblowers.

The Northwest Detention Center is operated by the GEO Group, which is the same private contractor that operates the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in California. As you are aware, Adelanto was the subject of a recent report from your office which condemned conditions at the facility. The Management Alert, issued by the OIG on September 27, 2018, recounts conditions that pose “significant health and safety risks at the facility.” The report identified several risks that showed improper and overly restrictive segregation and inadequate medical care at the GEO-run facility. Among many alarming observations, the OIG found that medical providers at Adelanto prematurely and inappropriately placed detainees in disciplinary segregation, improperly handcuffed and shackled detainees, failed to provide necessary auxiliary aids or translated materials regarding their segregations, and that in 10 of 14 instances the required direct communication with detainees and medical or mental health staff was not conducted.

We are alarmed by the similarities between findings by the OIG at Adelanto and reports our offices have received regarding conditions at the NWDC. Individuals detained at the NWDC have engaged in a series of hunger strikes over the past four years to highlight ongoing concerns, including alleged abuse of solitary confinement and failure to provide prompt and adequate medical treatment. Our staff have visited the facility multiple times and heard from NWDC staff and detainees about shortages in health care and mental health care providers. Furthermore, we have received reports GEO Group and ICE retaliated against people who spoke out about their treatment at the NWDC. These issues are especially relevant in the context of Mr. Amar’s death, who had been engaged in a hunger strike and found to be at risk of suicide by ICE.

As you are aware, findings of negligent care and unsafe conditions at detention centers across the country have not been isolated incidents. Since the OIG began conducting unannounced inspections in 2017, it released three reports on surprise inspections at ICE facilities revealing conditions that undermine the health and safety of detainees. Moreover, just this week, an autopsy report found Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez, a 33-year-old transgender asylum seeker from Honduras detained at a private detention center in New Mexico, was physically abused in detention and died after several days of severe, untreated dehydration. These reports are unacceptable.

There is a clear pattern that suggests a severe lack of oversight and repeated failures to make sufficient improvements by ICE and private contractors operating detention facilities. We understand there are existing internal processes within ICE to inspect detention facilities and investigate deaths. However, reports published on December 11, 2017 and June 26, 2018 by your office indicated that these processes often do not lead to any improvements in practices and conditions, and ICE has not effectively held private facilities accountable for adhering to ICE’s detention standards. Clearly, these processes are not working and are failing to protect the wellbeing of detainees.

A full investigation by the Office of Inspector General into Mr. Amar’s death and a comprehensive inspection and review of the conditions at the Northwest Detention Center is imperative. It’s vital that we understand what happened and what improvements must be made to address safety and health risks that could otherwise lead to similar tragic incidents in the future.

 

Sincerely,

 

Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act Passes House 

Washington, DC – Representatives Adam Smith (D-WA), Eliot L. Engel (D-NY), Ted Poe (R-TX), Michael McCaul (R-TX), and Bill Keating (D-MA) today applauded the House passage of their bipartisan bill, the Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act. This legislation would improve U.S. engagement in fragile and unstable countries to reduce violence and address the conditions that create safe havens for terrorists, criminal networks, and war lords.

“Instability across the world continues to lead to the displacement of millions of people. In response to the unprecedented refugee crisis caused by the rise in conflict, famine and disease, the U.S. must be a leader in addressing the root causes of violence and fragility. The Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act is a significant step in bringing together defense, diplomatic, and development stakeholders to better tackle these complex challenges,” said Rep. Smith, Ranking Member of the Committee on Armed Services.

“Around the world, levels of violence are at a 25-year high, driving massive instability. This is a global security threat, as fragile, unstable states are breeding grounds for criminals and terrorists,” said Rep. Engel, Ranking Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, on the House floor. “Over the years, we have learned a lot about what works to stabilize conflicts and prevent violence from breaking out. We need to update our government policies to implement those lessons. This bill does just that, by establishing an initiative to reduce fragility and violence that will align American policy and programs with best practices.”

“Around the globe today, nations plagued by conflict and violence pose serious challenges for our interests abroad and security at home,” said Rep. Poe, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade. “Terrorists and rogue regimes have long exploited fragile states to operate beyond the rule of law and promote extremism. Meanwhile, the various departments and agencies of the U.S. government charged with conducting our foreign policy have responded to these challenges with ad hoc fixes that avoid addressing underlying causes of instability and lack interagency coordination and proper Congressional oversight. The Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act will fix these mistakes by requiring coordinated long-term strategies presented to Congress that target the core cause of violence and instability in trouble nations around the world. Through a smarter, planned process, our diplomats, military, and USAID staff can use our foreign aid dollars more effectively and efficiently, instead of endless assistance programs that only apply triage to persistent conflicts. I thank Ranking Member Engel, Rep. Smith, and Rep. McCaul for their hard work on this important bill.” 

“Today, the House took an important step to reduce worldwide violence and improve international stability. Violence and brutal conflict costs the global economy over $14 trillion a year and creates environments where large-scale international responses are needed to stop the struggle and deliver humanitarian aid. This legislation directs USAID, the State Department, and the Defense Department to work with other relevant agencies in crafting an integrated strategy in a number of these ‘fragile states.’ The strategy would focus on preventing the total breakdown of government, while also denying terrorist groups the unstable, fertile territory from which they recruit,” said Rep. McCaul, Chair of the Committee on Homeland Security. “By proactively prioritizing the necessary resources and with our federal departments working in unison, we will be better positioned to eliminate terrorist safe havens, stimulate global stability, and avoid large-scale international interventions.”

“As a senior Member of the Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security Committees, it could not be clearer to me that to be safer here at home, we need to address the root causes of fragility that leave communities around the world vulnerable to conflict and extremism. That’s exactly what this bill does. It requires an interagency strategy and a pilot program so that our resources are not only better coordinated to have a greater impact, but so that we also learn as much as possible about how to best combat this problem,” said Rep. Keating, Ranking Member of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade and Co-Chair of the Congressional Counterterrorism Caucus. “We have lost so many lives and expended so much on conflicts that don’t seem to ever get resolved. Addressing fragility brings us closer to the root causes of these conflicts and we owe it to our servicemen and women, to members of our foreign service, and to the American people to do that. Time and again, our research has shown that focusing on fragility will be a much more effective way of creating more sustainable peace and security around the world.”

Background

Violence and violent conflict have become the leading causes of displacement worldwide, resulting in an unprecedented 68.5 million forcibly displaced people, while preventable violence kills at least 1.4 million people annually. Containing violence costs the global economy $14.7 trillion a year (12.4% of world GDP).

US National Security Strategies over the past 15 years affirm that America has a national security interest in better preventing and mitigating violence, violent conflict, and fragility. Lessons learned over the past 20 years show that doing so will require more clearly defined goals, strategies, and interagency coordination.

The Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act charges the State Department, Defense Department, and USAID with designating at least 6 priority countries or regions and implementing 10-year plans for addressing violence and fragility in those areas. The bill requires these departments and agencies to apply lessons learned and robust standards for measuring effectiveness and adapting programs based on results.

The legislation is endorsed by: Alliance for Peacebuilding, American Friends Service Committee, Bread for the World, CARE, Carl Wilkens Fellows, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), Center on Conscience & War, Charity & Security Network, Chemonics, Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness, Conciliation Resources, Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd US Provinces, Cure Violence, Educators’ Institute for Human Rights, Foreign Policy 4 America, Franciscan Action Network, Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), Future Without Violence, Global Communities, Global Water 2020, Humanity United Action, i-ACT, In Defense of Christians, Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy, InterAction, International Alert, International Civil Society Action Network, International Crisis Group (ICG), International Rescue Committee, Jewish World Watch, Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, Mercy Corps, National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, National Latino Evangelical Coalition, Never Again Coalition, Nuru International, Pax Christi International, Pax Christi USA, Peace Direct, PRBB Foundation, Saferworld, Search for Common Ground, STAND, Stop Genocide Now, United Church of Christ, Women for Afghan Women, World Relief, and World Vision.

Washington, D.C. – House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-WA) released the following statement about the Trump Administration’s request that the Supreme Court take up his ban on transgender military service:

“President Trump’s ban on transgender military service is utterly discriminatory and unconstitutional. Anyone who is qualified should be allowed to serve their country openly, and not be punished for their patriotism due to an arbitrary and bigoted limitation that the President announced in a tweet. We have fought this policy every step of the way, and if the Supreme Court takes up this issue, we will continue to fight it there.”

Washington, D.C. – House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-WA) released the following statement about President Trump’s order regarding deployment of the military to the southern border:

“I strongly oppose the President's recent change in policy granting the military expanded authority regarding the use of lethal force, detention and search of civilians, and crowd control on our southern border. This guidance is unwise, unnecessary, and likely illegal. It is unwise because the President is creating a dangerous situation where thousands of armed troops are being asked to operate under vague and unclear rules of engagement. It is unnecessary because there is no evidence that the U.S. Border Patrol isn't capable of handling the situation on its own. The guidance is likely illegal because the military is prohibited from conducting law enforcement activities in the United States by the Posse Comitatus Act.

“This deployment has been a politically motivated stunt from its inception, and it is putting the U.S. military in an inappropriate position while undermining service members’ ability to train and perform their appropriate functions. At its core, this political stunt continues to be an exercise in fearmongering with the intention of inaccurately portraying asylum seekers as dangerous. Even more troubling, this decision appears to be driven by a group of anti-immigration fanatics in the White House who refuse to listen to legal and policy advice from experts while not even involving senior DOD and military leaders in the policy deliberations.

“I am extremely disappointed with the way that the administration has been stonewalling Congress. The public deserves transparency regarding the decision to initiate this deployment, and the justification for a change in the authority under which our  troops are operating. We need to know what the mission is, what exactly our troops are doing, how long the deployments will last, and how much it is going to cost.

“President Trump’s actions have potentially grave implications for the rule of law and it is essential that Congress get to the bottom of this misuse of our armed forces. For these reasons, the border deployment will be among the first oversight issues that the Armed Services Committee takes up in the new Congress.”

House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith sent the following letter to President Trump regarding recent guidance to U.S. military forces at the southern border. 

November 23, 2018

 

The Honorable Donald J. Trump

President of the United States

The White House

Washington, DC  20500

 

Dear Mr. President,

I am writing because of your administration’s recent decision to grant legal authority for active duty personnel along the southern border to act as an extension of law enforcement. This decision raises serious legal questions, puts our armed forces in an untenable position, and further reduces their readiness.


The activities described in the memorandum signed, at your direction, by your Chief of Staff include “a show or use of force (including lethal force, where necessary), crowd control, temporary detention, and cursory search.” This is yet another unnecessary step towards the militarization of the southern border and is not a proportionate response to individuals that wish to legally seek asylum as they flee violence and persecution in their countries. Furthermore, the activities described in the memorandum may be a violation of existing federal laws, such as the Posse Comitatus Act (18 USC 1385) or limitations on troops’ participation certain law enforcement activities (10 USC 275). 

I am also concerned by the continued lack of transparency and limited information being provided to Congress on Department of Defense operations along the southern border. Congress has frequently heard about decisions made or actions taken through the press rather than hearing directly from your Administration. This includes this most recent memorandum issued the week of Thanksgiving. With that in mind, I request the following information be provided in response to this letter:


  (1) a detailed justification, to include any classified or unclassified threat assessment, for issuing the directive that military personnel be used to conduct activities that could be considered law enforcement activities;

  (2) an assessment of the capability and capacity of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, and any gaps or limitations that were identified in the context of the current caravans, that warrant the use of active duty military personnel in potential law enforcement activities described in the memorandum;

   (3) a legal opinion and specific statutory authorities cited to justify how the potential actions authorized by the memorandum are in compliance with current law and not in contradiction to previously referenced statutory limitations;

   (4) a list of the equipment and weapons that military personnel will be authorized to carry and use in performance of the expanded mission;

   (5) details of the specific training, to include foreign language training and training on the legal rights of individuals to seek asylum, that military personnel will be provided prior to the performance of the expanded mission;

   (6) the cost to-date of utilizing 5,800 active duty and 2,100 National Guard personnel along the southern border, the expected length the deployment is expected to take place beyond December 15, 2018, and the expected total cost of the Department of Defense’s activities along the southern border, and specific funding sources, in fiscal year 2019;

   (7) the specific mission assigned to each unit supporting the southern border deployment and plans to transition these responsibilities back to the Department of Homeland Security;

   (8) what facilities military personnel would use to temporarily detain individuals under the new authority, what certifications are in place to ensure facilities are adequate for children and families, what time limits are in place for length of detention, what training and capabilities the troops have in providing care to asylum seekers in their detention, and what process is in place to ensure individuals detained by our military are transferred into the existing lawful asylum seeking process.


I hope that you will reconsider this recent decision and de-escalate the situation by removing active duty troops from the southern border. 


                                                                                   Sincerely,

      Adam Smith

      Ranking Member