Elderly Korean Immigrant Dies of Apparent Suicide in ICE Custody

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By ANNAKAI HAYAKAWA GESHLIDER

On Sunday, May 17, 74-year-old Choung Woong Ahn died by suicide at the Mesa Verde Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Processing Center in Bakersfield.

Born in South Korea, Ahn moved to the U.S. in 1988 and became a permanent resident. He had lung cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and a history of heart attacks. His health issues made him particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Choung Woong Ahn

According to the ACLU, a group of lawyers made emergency requests for Ahn’s release as early as March. Since then, his lawyers submitted three pleas for his release, all of which were rejected. A U.S. district judge made the most recent rejection, on May 13.

“This tragedy was senseless and preventable,” said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. “Suicides in ICE detention have increased to disturbing highs under this administration — and that was before COVID-19. ICE is now detaining approximately 28,000 people; many have reported receiving almost no official information about the pandemic. Make no mistake: ICE and the administration are responsible for this death. No one should be held in civil detention during a pandemic.”

Priya Patel is an immigrants’ rights attorney with Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland, which represented Ahn. “Authorities must learn from Mr. Ahn’s unnecessary and painful death, and immediately stop caging other vulnerable people,” Patel said.

Ahn is the second person to die in a California ICE facility this month. On May 6, 57-year-old Carlos Escobar Mejia died from COVID-19 at Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. Otay Mesa is currently the site of one of the nation’s worst coronavirus outbreaks. According to ICE’s website, as of May 16, 154 people detained at Otay Mesa have tested positive for COVID-19, as well as 11 employees.

After immigrating to the U.S. from El Salvador, Escobar Mejia lived in the U.S. for 40 years. According to **The San Francisco Chronicle,** detainees who lived alongside Escobar Mejia said he alerted medical staff of his deteriorating condition for weeks. Staff ignored these pleas. Instead of taking him to a hospital, ICE officials transferred him to an area where patients were being treated for COVID-19. After Escobar Mejia’s death, a group of more than 40 people detained at the center wrote a letter urging state officials to end the neglect employed by ICE.

GEO Group is a private corporation that runs the Mesa Verde Detention Center, where Ahn resided. CoreCivic owns the Otay Mesa Detention Center, where Escobar Mejia resided. According to The Sentencing Project, GEO Group and CoreCivic are the nation’s largest prison corporations, collectively managing over half of the private prison contracts in the U.S. The Sentencing Project conducts research and advocacy to reduce the country’s reliance on incarceration and address racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

On May 20, advocates sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and State Attorney General Xavier Becerra requesting the state investigate the deaths of Ahn and Escobar Mejia, saying, “(Ahn’s) case was a clear example of a medically vulnerable individual who was denied their right to life by ICE and GEO.”

The letter also calls for the state to review health and safety conditions at California’s five detention centers and hold private operators accountable for violations. Over 60 organizations signed the letter, including Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, Centro Legal de la Raza, Nikkei Resisters, and ACLU Foundations of California.

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