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California Could Tighten Reporting Requirements for Migrant Deaths in Custody

A new bill is making its way through the state legislature as recent reports of migrant child deaths raise concerns about transparency.
Imprisoned immigrants are seen at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Adelanto Detention Facility on September 6th, 2016, in Adelanto, California.

Imprisoned immigrants are seen at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Adelanto Detention Facility on September 6th, 2016, in Adelanto, California.

A bill making its way through the California legislature would require Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities to immediately report in-custody deaths to the state's attorney general. The California Department of Justice would then investigate the circumstances and cause of the immigrant's death.

State Senator Maria Elena Durazo introduced the bill, SB 622, in February. Last week, on May 23rd—a day after a CBS News report revealed that a migrant child had died in government custody in September, though the federal government did not publicly announce her death at the time—the bill passed in the California senate. It now awaits a vote in the state assembly.

The fact that it took eight months for the public to discover that Darlyn Valle, a 10-year-old from El Salvador, had died in government custody raised concerns that there could have been more migrant children deaths than are publicly known. As of now, the government has released details of six migrant child deaths since September of 2018. Prior to that month, it had been over a decade since a migrant child had died in federal government custody.

But this new legislation would not have affected how the federal government reported Valle's death, even if she had died in California (she passed away in Nebraska). Durazo's bill only applies to civil detention facilities, which is to say ICE detention facilities. None of the six children who have reportedly died in government custody had been held by ICE.

As I reported last week, three different federal agencies have migrant children in their custody: ICE, Customs and Border Protection, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Each has its own set of reporting requirements for when someone dies in their custody.

Federal law requires that ICE publicly report any death in its custody within 90 days. But there are no laws that require CBP or ORR to report deaths in their custody. CBP does, however, have an internal policy that requires the agency to publicly announce in-custody deaths within about 24 hours. ORR, which takes custody of unaccompanied minors who arrive on the border, has no public reporting policy or requirement, though the agency does have a policy to report in-custody deaths to "appropriate Federal, State, and local authorities" and the child's parents or next of kin, as well as the consulate of the child's home country.

Durazo's bill, if signed into law, would only affect in-state ICE detention facilities, but it would dramatically change those facilities' reporting requirements: The bill would require the facilities to report deaths to the California Department of Justice within two hours. Though ICE completes its own reports on all in-custody deaths, SB 622 would mandate that California authorities also investigate any deaths.

"We need greater transparency and accountability in civil detention facilities currently operating in [California]," Durazo tweeted the day the bill passed in the Senate.