Since the Trump Administration announced a punitive immigration detention policy in 2018 that separated families, reports have surfaced of immigrants who have died while in detention or shortly after being released to medical facilities for treatment. It’s understandable why news consumers and suppliers are interested in deaths in detention facilities given the Trump Administration’s actions on this issue, but the distinct impression from reading all of these stories is that being detained is more dangerous than ever.
To check whether this was true or if this impression was just an artifact of cognitive bias, I decided to estimate the annual death rate in immigration detention in the United States. There are two primary pieces of data required to calculate this rate: The number of people in detention each year and the number of deaths. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) runs all of the detention facilities and they provide the number of deaths and admissions. The American Immigration Law Association provides some more recent numbers of deaths in detention, but I only include those that ICE also counts. The admissions into ICE detention facilities variable is the proper one to use as it is closer to the number of unique individuals who were present in a detention facility in each year. The numbers for both variables run through the end of Fiscal Year (FY) 2018.
The FY2018 death rate in ICE immigration detention was 2.3 per 100,000 detainees, a 39 percent drop relative to the rate for FY2017. That’s good news, but the improvement in FY2018 follows on a deterioration in FY2017 from FY2016. In FY2017, the death rate per 100,000 detainees increased by 31 percent relative to FY2016. In other words, the chance of dying in detention rose in FY2017 – but the death rate began to rise in FY2015 from a low point of 1.4 per 100,000 in FY2014 in an uninterrupted trend. The largest percentage increases during this time was a 60 percent jump from FY2014 to FY2015. The Trump Administration inherited an ICE detention system where the death rate was rising, presided over a year when the death rate continued to rise, and then saw it fall by 32 percent in FY2018.
Figure 1 shows the total number of ICE detentions and the total number of deaths in custody. The absolute number and rates of death in ICE detention were highest during the George W. Bush administration at 6.4 per 100,000 per year. Those death rates fell rapidly from 2004, the first full year when ICE was in operation, from 11.9 per 100,000 detainees to 2.9 per 100,000 detainees in 2008. The death rate rose 26 percent during the first year of the Obama Administration in 2009, then started falling again the next year with an average annual death rate of 2.3 per 100,000 detainees during his entire presidency. We only have data for two years of the Trump administration where the annual death rate is 2.9 percent – almost identical to that of the first two years of the Obama Administration.
This excellent study of death rates in ICE detention gives three reasons for why death rates fell so much during the Bush years and remained low thereafter. The first is that the length of time that immigrants spent in detention fell, which means there was less opportunity for each individual to die even though more were in detention. The second was that ICE increasingly relied on Secure Communities and local law enforcement to first arrest illegal immigrants and then transfer them to ICE. Local law enforcement agencies typically provided any healthcare that the immigrants needed before being transferred to ICE or, tragically, many of them died in local law enforcement custody. The third is that ICE medical policies and practices improved during this time.
Although it may seem like there is a major spike in deaths in immigration detention, and the FY2019 could show that (although that is extremely unlikely), that is simply not true. Although there was an increase in death rates in FY2017, they were down considerably in FY2018 and show all indication of falling further in FY2019.