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Medical Services for Detained Immigrants: The Challenges and Lessons Learned

Medical Services for Detained Immigrants: The Challenges and Lessons Learned

Picture of Annabelle Sedano

The immigration system, in my opinion, is a complex subject to begin with. It’s a topic that carries a lot of controversy in itself. So imagine adding one more element to that controversy; health care in detention centers.

My goal was to investigate the conditions and medical services within immigration detention centers and showcase it during our televised newscasts. It would be part of a multimedia, bilingual project. I knew I was going to be up against a series of obstacles, but I also knew that it was a subject that would be of great interest and importance to our audience. An estimated 400,000 people end up in one of the 250 detention centers across the United States annually --  the majority being Hispanic. With that said, I decided to go along for that ride and boy was it bumpy yet enlightening. 

As I started my research, I came across vital information, the most shocking was the number of deaths that had occurred in these facilities -- more than 140 since 2003 according to the department of homeland security. My questions very quickly became how and why is this happening? It was a matter that needed in depth coverage, a skill that was enhanced through this fellowship.

I had read and done research on the subject and found that the medical and mental treatment in many of the facilities was lacking. In fact, activists and attorneys who work closely with detained immigrants had a number of cases of people who were complaining of poor or no medical attention.

Although the information was at hand, the problem was getting people who were or had experienced this so-called “negligence” in detention centers to speak on camera. That was part of a series of challenges I encountered early on while working on this story. Obtaining a tour inside a detention center was another obstacle. Without that footage I had nothing to support my piece.

The next challenge was trying to interview a doctor who would not only speak about the short- and long-term effects but who had proof of what was actually happening inside. Fortunately, I had the support and guidance of the editors and fellows who were very helpful in sharing content and contacts that would assist me with my investigation, which would eventually allow me to share my findings with our audience.   

Through a request to the Western Regional Communications Director/Spokesperson of Immigration and Customs (ICE), I was able to tour the Adelanto Immigration Detention Facility, in Adelanto, CA. This was a huge gain because in March 2012 this facility failed to provide adequate medical attention to one of their detained immigrants who consequently died.

It was the beginning of a great pile of information that continued to flourish with essential elements. I interviewed a psychologist who had done a study with Physicians for Humans Rights evaluating different detention centers in the country regarding the use of segregation and solitary confinement. I spoke to the family of Fernando Valdivia, an immigrant who died while in ICE custody. I toured the Adelanto Detention Center, including their medical hub with a video camera, and spoke to two detained men who claimed their medical needs were not being met.

The information was vast and all too interesting to exclude anything. Although realistically, I knew air-time played a key factor. My editors assisted me with this. In fact, of the many things I learned from working on this project, the most important was to maintain an outline of what I wanted to share with my audience and research why that particular information was of significance to them.  

It’s inevitable, the deeper you get involved with your story the more overwhelmed you become. I found that keeping an outline and modifying it as I gathered knew elements kept me sane. I was in contact with the editors throughout the project and would get their advice on how I should handle certain data or whether other elements were necessary.

Overall, the experience of working on a well-researched topic is an opportunity that allows one to go beyond daily news and discover information that wouldn’t otherwise be shared.            

Most importantly, this turned out to be a project that gained much interest within our audience. Many thanked us for bringing to light a matter that has been of great concern for many who have been affected by it. It was a side of the immigration system that hadn’t been fully explored. I think our viewers learned that the immigration system is not just about being deported but more so about what happens once a person is detained and what they could potentially be exposed to in one of the facilities. Aside from that, they learned how those circumstances in the end affect them whether or not they are for or against undocumented immigrants receiving medical care while in detention.

Annabelle Sedano's Fellowship project on health problems in detention centers can be found here   and here.

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