Mr. Ng’s Death


This country’s harsh regime of immigration enforcement is racked with troubles from top to bottom, from the federal raids recklessly sweeping thousands of harmless immigrants into custody to the scandal-riddled detention system that abuses and neglects them once they get there.

Last week, The Times’s Nina Bernstein reported on another shameful case of someone entering immigration detention, getting sick, and dying. This time it was Hiu Lui Ng, a computer engineer from China. He paid the ultimate price for overstaying a visa, and getting lost in a sprawling system that some have likened to a gulag.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement will not comment because of a continuing investigation. But court affidavits tell a story of shocking neglect:

Although he complained of excruciating back pain for months, and grew ever frailer in custody, officials at the Rhode Island detention center where he was being held denied Mr. Ng an independent medical evaluation and even a wheelchair. At one point, according to the affidavits, he was shackled and taken in an ambulance for a two-hour drive to Hartford, where an immigration officer pressured him to stop appealing his case and accept deportation.

When lawyers finally persuaded a judge to insist on suitable medical treatment for Mr. Ng, the long-deferred diagnosis was dire. Prison officials had said it was all an act. It was terminal cancer — and a broken spine. Mr. Ng was taken to the hospital, and died five days later.

One must wonder why Mr. Ng was in prison at all. He was no dangerous criminal. He entered the country legally but overstayed a visa years ago. His asylum plea was rejected, and he missed a court date when the order was sent to the wrong address. In the ensuing years, he went to college, married, and fathered two sons.

His wife, a naturalized citizen, petitioned to get him legal residency, but at his green-card interview last summer, he was seized.

To ensure that other detainees do not meet Mr. Ng’s awful fate, Congress should pass the Detainee Basic Medical Care Act, sponsored by Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California. It would impose mandatory health care standards on the detention system, a rapidly growing and deeply flawed ad-hoc network of local, state, federal and privately run lockups.

Immigration officials keep insisting that detention care is adequate and getting better. But it will take far more than promises of more audits to build confidence in a system that allows people to suffer so grievously.

Immigrant advocates have long complained about the lack of due process for people who run afoul of the country’s convoluted immigration laws. But access to decent medical care is an even starker problem.

While reasonable minds can differ on some aspects of the immigration debate, protecting the health of detainees is not one of them. Allowing sick people to suffer and die in custody without adequate treatment is unacceptable and violates the most fundamental standards of American law and decency. The system must be fixed.