When does ICE sedate immigrants without their consent?

Published on
March 16, 2020

Over the last year, I’ve talked to dozens of people who have been detained and deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As a Fund for Investigative Journalism diversity fellow working with The Marshall Project, I was investigating the federal agency’s little-known transportation unit called ICE Air. I heard endless stories of alleged mistreatment by ICE, including a practice I was previously unaware of — involuntary sedation.   

For the 2020 California Fellowship, I will be working with my colleagues at the nonprofit newsroom Capital & Main to dig into ICE’s use of sedation on people detained in California. When and why does the agency inject detainees with sedatives? What kind of medications are officials using? What are the short- and long-term health effects of being sedated without consent? These are a few of the questions I will be exploring.

The U.S. federal government has forcibly drugged immigrants in the past, sometimes with powerful antipsychotics, a practice that has raised concerns among medical professionals and lawyers. In fact, the involuntary chemical restraint of detainees without medical justification is considered a violation of some international human rights codes. But ICE’s sedation practices have faced hardly any scrutiny in recent years.

To report on ICE’s use of sedatives, I will be digging deep into public records from the federal and Californian governments, compiling and analyzing data from these records, interviewing a range of experts and, most critically, crowdsourcing accounts from people who have been subjected to ICE’s sedation methods. 

The beating heart of my reporting process will be community engagement. I plan to engage with affected immigrant communities in California by circulating a call-out via WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook groups, email listservs and Capital & Main’s website. I also intend to collaborate with California-based immigrant rights groups, such as Physicians for Human Rights, Freedom for Immigrants and Friends of Orange County Detainees, which have long been monitoring conditions in ICE’s California detention facilities. I hope to gather as many personal stories as possible and piece them together to get a clearer picture of how people in ICE custody are being affected by forced sedation.

I’ll also be reaching out to medical professionals and public health experts who can speak to the health implications of involuntary drugging, immigrant rights advocates and lawyers who are familiar with how this fits into the bigger picture of detention and deportation, and of course, ICE employees who have directly participated in or are aware of the government’s policies and practices regarding sedation.

I have already started requesting and obtaining internal ICE records that can help illuminate the issue. But I anticipate it will be challenging to lift the veil. I am currently suing ICE for medical records I asked for under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Ultimately, my reporting seeks to increase government transparency and accountability by informing the public and policymakers about federal practices impacting the health of immigrant communities.

Capital & Main, where I am a staff reporter, will publish my investigation in English and Spanish with the goal of making our findings available to a wider swath of Californians, especially immigrant communities. Marco Amador, our multimedia director, will work with me to tell this story through visual platforms like photography, video and data visualizations.

If you or someone you know has been sedated by ICE, I want to hear from you. You can reach me at AAlbaladejo@capitalandmain.com or via WhatsApp or Signal at 954 471 1533.