SAN DIEGO — Relatives are still seeking answers about an asylum-seeker who was removed from life support after an apparent accident while in federal detention awaiting a hearing in immigration court.
Nebane Abienwi, a father of six who fled Cameroon this summer, was declared dead at a medical center Oct. 1 at the age of 37 after what was described as a “medical emergency” at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, USA Today reported. The detention center is a facility of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which had custody over the man.
Abienwi’s brother Akongnwi, who asked USA Today to identify him by his last name for fear of repercussions against his family at home, said the family wanted the ventilator to be kept in place until a relative could arrive. The family wants to know why it was removed.
“We did not approve that,” he told USA Today from Cameroon. “One hundred percent, we did not.”
“The family spoke and said, ‘We believe in miracles. It has happened to other families. Why not ours?’” said the migrant’s brother. “I made clear that he should remain like that and the family would decide if we want to take him off that machine or not.”
ICE told USA Today that Abienwi’s treatment was determined by hospital staff. When its detainees are admitted to the hospital, it said, it works with relatives “to the extent possible to ensure they can participate in decisions.”
Nine migrants have died in ICE custody in the past year. The department detains 52,000-plus migrants per day across 225 detention centers and jails. The numbers of arriving undocumented immigrants have surged, straining the resources of government facilities and personnel.
Akongnwi, a resident of South Africa who runs a car repair and brokerage company, has sought a travel visa to travel to California to find out more about his brother’s death, to identify the body and to perform cultural rites before the casket is sealed. He has been denied a visa at both the U.S. Embassy at Johannesburg and in his native Cameroon. He said U.S. officials in Cameroon asked him whether he would apply for asylum like his brother.
Akongnwi has had to borrow money for his travel expenses. He has arranged for his brother’s body to be kept at a California funeral home but does not know how to get it home.
ICE officials had contacted Akongnwi on Sept. 30 to inform him of his brother’s critical situation. Officials at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center said Abienwi was bleeding profusely from his brain.
Abienwi had suffered a medical emergency about 3:24am on Sept. 26, according to the ICE detainee death report, apparently after falling off a top bunk in his cell. A nurse found him and reported that he was confused, sweating, making “jerky movements” and complaining of thirst. The detention center staff contacted emergency services at 3:50am, and he was taken to the hospital.
Just after noon on Oct. 1, two doctors reviewed Abienwi’s examination results, concluded they were “were consistent with brain death” and then “pronounced him dead.” The ICE report said the doctors informed Abienwi’s wife 30 minutes later and hospital staff then disconnected the ventilator two hours later.
Akongnwi has questioned the accuracy of parts of the ICE report, saying his brother’s wife could not deal with speaking with the officials and directed them to speak with Akongnwi.
ICE officials said they are reviewing Abienwi’s death to ensure that officials followed policy.
The department has come under heavy scrutiny after President Donald Trump tightened migrant entry rules and refugee detention rules and implemented stronger enforcement against undocumented migrants.
Watchdogs like the U.S. Inspector General have faulted the Border Patrol’s federal detention facilities, citing dangerous overcrowding that put detainees’ health and safety at risk.
Trump administration policy seeks to detain asylees until their cases are heard in immigration court. Abienwi, who did not have a criminal record, had been in customs and Border Patrol custody for two weeks before being turned over to ICE for long-term detention.
Abienwi left Cameroon due to armed conflicts in his country, where about 500 villages have been destroyed, his family said. He flew to Ecuador and traveled through Colombia, Central America and Mexico before reaching the U.S. border. According to Akongnwi, his brother said he planned to request asylum.
“He wanted to go to the United States, get his documents, start to work, open a business and bring his family, so they can be safe and the kids could go to school,” Akongnwi told USA Today.
For decades, Catholic bishops and other leaders have advocated for comprehensive immigration reform.
The bishops have faulted various aspects of Trump administration policy, including its treatment of unaccompanied child detainees, its family separation policy and its “stay in Mexico” policy wherein would-be asylum seekers are denied entry to the U.S. pending court hearings.
In June Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, whose diocese borders Juarez, Mexico, denounced “a government and society which view fleeing children and families as threats; a government which treats children in U.S. custody worse than animals; a government and society who turn their backs on pregnant mothers, babies and families and make them wait in Ciudad Juarez without a thought to the crushing consequences on this challenged city.”
“This government and this society are not well,” he said June 26. “We suffer from a life-threatening case of hardening of the heart.”
The bishops’ concerns about U.S. treatment of migrants pre-date the Trump administration. In a report released in May 2015, titled “Unlocking Human Dignity: A Plan to Transform the U.S. Immigrant Detention System,” they charged that detainees receive harsher treatment than criminal defendants and face increased difficulty securing legal counsel and due legal process.
They advocated reducing the number of detention facilities and recommended community-based case management as a cost-effective and successful model in the legal processing of immigrants.
The report cited attorneys’ and pastoral workers’ reports of “the sexual abuse of women detainees, women forced to deliver babies in restraints, frequent hunger strikes, suicides, government officials pressuring detainees to abandon their legal claims, and the treatment of severe medical conditions with Tylenol, Advil and Motrin.”