Amid Faux Coffins, Protesters Demand Justice for Immigrant's Death in ICE Detention

Protesters built a fence of faux coffins and body bags around the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Phoenix office Thursday to mark the three-month anniversary of the death of a 31-year-old Mexican held in a federal detention center in Eloy.

Jose De Jesus Deniz-Sahagun, who choked on a sock May 20, is one of more than 150 people who have died in ICE custody over the past 12 years — a fact that demonstrators said they find reprehensible.

“Why has the federal government allowed this to happen?” said Francisca Porchas, who helped organize the protest for the activist group Puente Arizona. “Immigrant lives are seen as worthless apparently.”

Each coffin and body bag was symbolically labeled with the name and age of an immigrant who died in detention:

Manuel Cota Domingo, 34
Maya Narid, 57
Elias Lopez Ruelas, 55

A throng of protesters stood among the coffins, shaking their fists at the ICE building.

“Justice!” they cried in Spanish. “Justice!”

A Pinal County coroner ruled Deniz-Sahagun’s death a suicide. But demonstrators weren’t ready to let ICE off the hook. Interviews with other detainees at Eloy Detention Center, they said, suggest he may have died after a brutal beating from guards.

Deniz-Sahagun presented himself to border agents May 15, begging for asylum, after the men he hired to smuggle him over the border threatened to kill him, Porchas said. Family members reported he was in good spirits when he was transferred to Eloy Detention Center May 18.

“If someone wants to die, they don’t run away from people who want to kill them,” Porchas said. “He was desperate to live.” 

Examiners found no evidence of physical abuse aside from a bump on Deniz-Sahagun’s head. However, the autopsy report does raise questions about the quality of mental healthcare Deniz-Sahagun received.

On May 19, according to the report, a mental-health provider evaluated Deniz-Sahagun for “delusional thoughts and behaviors for which he had to be restrained by corrections staff” and ordered he be placed on suicide watch.

There was a broken off toothbrush handle in Deniz-Sahagun’s stomach, which suggested he may have previously attempted to kill himself.

The next day, however, Deniz-Sahagun was transferred to a single-person cell, where officers checked on him only every 15 minutes.

Puente Arizona Thursday called on ICE to publish the results of its internal investigation.

“There are so many unanswered questions,” said Maria Rodriguez, legal counsel for Puenta Arizona. “If he was so unstable, why was he taken off suicide watch?”

The group argued that the federal government should do away with detention centers altogether, saying it is “inhumane” to separate immigrants from their families and prevent them from obtaining quality medical care.

“There are a lot of people who are ill — mentally and physically — and they don’t get the care that they need,” Rodriguez said. “Most of these 150 deaths could have been avoided if these people were allowed to fight their deportation outside of a detention center.”

Bertha Martinez, 41, who spent two months at an Eloy Detention Center in 2014, said the experience made her suicidal.

“I felt that I had no other option because I was so far removed from the thing I loved most, which was my family,” she said. “It was the longest, most desperate time of my life.

ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts-O’Keefe contested allegations that Deniz-Sahagun was mistreated and that the agency's mental healthcare is lacking.

She said the agency requires any “use of force” against detainees be reported and documented in writing within two days. There are no records of an incident involving Deniz-Sahagun.

The agency, which employs full-time medical staff, recently beefed up its “Self Harm and Suicide Prevention and Intervention” program. The center has been inspected three times since 2012 and found to be in compliance with healthcare standards. 

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is committed to ensuring the welfare of those in custody,” she said. “Detention center personnel monitor those in ICE custody continuously and detainees can seek medical attention as needed.” 

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Elizabeth Stuart
Contact: Elizabeth Stuart