News by VICE

A Migrant in ICE Custody Was Taken Off Life Support. His Family Says They Weren't Consulted.

The family of Nebane Abienwi say they asked for him to be kept on life support until a relative could travel to the U.S. from Cameroon to be with him.

by Gaby Del Valle
Nov 5 2019, 4:07pm

The relatives of a Cameroonian asylum-seeker who died in ICE custody in early October say the doctors pulled him off critical life support — even though the family had asked them not to.

Nebane Abienwi, 37, suffered a “hypertensive event” on Sept. 25 after less than two weeks at the Otay Meta Detention Center in San Diego. Abienwi’s relatives in Cameroon told USA Today that ICE called them on Sept. 30 to say Abienwi had been hospitalized due to a brain hemorrhage and was being kept alive by a ventilator. The family say they asked for him to be kept on life support until a relative could travel to the U.S. from Cameroon to be with him.

But a day later, two doctors at the Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center analyzed his exam results, said they were “consistent with death” and pronounced him dead, according to an ICE report on Abienwi’s death. The report says Abienwi’s wife was notified he had died 30 minutes after the doctors declared him dead, and that the doctors “discontinued [his] ventilator support” two hours after contacting her. Abienwi’s brother told USA Today that ICE never told him his brother was taken off life support and only learned his brother had died after a reporter contacted him about his brother’s death. Abienwi’s body is still in the U.S., and his brother is trying to get a visa so he can perform cultural rites on the body, according to a USA Today report.

The internal ICE report regarding Abienwi’s death shows that Abienwi, who'd already suffered from hypertension before being put in ICE custody, fell off his bunk bed on Sept. 26. After the fall, he appeared to be confused and sweating, and had difficulty moving his left arm and leg, the report says. Doctors initially concluded that he was fine, aside from having elevated blood pressure, but a subsequent exam found that he was suffering from internal bleeding.

The Otay Mesa facility, which is owned and operated by the private company CoreCivic, has been accused of not adequately addressing detainees’ health issues in the past. In February, more than 70 detainees in the facility signed a letter saying they had experienced racism and medical neglect at the facility.

Abienwi was the seventh immigrant to die in ICE custody in 2019, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association. He is the third known detainee to die at the Otay Mesa facility since 2016. Twelve immigrants died in ICE custody in 2018, according to AILA’s data.

Cover: In this June 9, 2017, file photo, a vehicle drives into the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. (AP Photo/Elliot Spagat, File)