Indian migrant dies in Georgia ICE detention

Jaspal Singh’s death follows a surge in illegal Indian immigration to the U.S.
February 15, 2018 Folkston, GA - Folkston ICE Processing Center in Charlton County. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

February 15, 2018 Folkston, GA - Folkston ICE Processing Center in Charlton County. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A Georgia immigrant detainee has died while in custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Jaspal Singh, an Indian national, had spent over nine months in detention at the Folkston ICE Processing Center near the Florida border before dying on April 15, at 57.

The cause of Singh’s death is unknown, with the results of an autopsy still pending, federal authorities said. Singh passed away at the Southeast Georgia Health System’s Camden Campus in St. Mary’s, Georgia.

“ICE remains committed to ensuring that all those in its custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments,” the agency said in a statement. “Comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment individuals arrive and throughout the entirety of their stay.”

Singh entered the U.S. legally in 1992, but was ordered deported by an immigration judge roughly six years later. In June 2023, border officials arrested Singh after he’d reentered the country illegally at the U.S.-Mexico border. Border Patrol then transferred custody of Singh to the Atlanta ICE field office, and he was detained in Folkston.

Singh’s death makes him the third foreign national to have passed away while in immigration detention this year. Including Singh, eleven Georgia ICE detainees died in custody since 2017, according to government data.

The last time an Indian ICE detainee died in Georgia came in 2017, when Atulkumar Babubhai Patel, 58, was apprehended at Hartsfield-Jackson because he did not possess the necessary immigration documents. He was detained by immigration officials at the Atlanta City Detention Center, and shortly thereafter began exhibiting symptoms of heart failure.

In that case, a review conducted by ICE found that the medical care and health services received by Patel while in custody “were delivered outside the safe limits of practice, which either directly or indirectly contributed to his death.”

Record levels of Indian migrants are attempting to illegally cross into the U.S. on foot.

During the 2023 fiscal year, border agents encountered nearly 97,000 Indian nationals trying to enter the country between official ports of entry. Just three years’ prior, that number was under 20,000.

According to experts interviewed by NBC News, extreme visa backlogs and the oppression of minority communities in India are among the factors behind the surge in Indian illegal immigration to the U.S.

Singh was a Sikh.

‘ICE detention is a South Asian issue’

Immigrant rights’ advocates say Singh’s death is an indictment of the immigrant detention system, which has previously given rise to various human rights complaints in Georgia, including widely shared reports of detained women undergoing unneeded gynecological procedures.

Folkston ICE Processing Center is a for-profit facility operated by the GEO Group, a Florida-based company.

“We express our condolences to Mr. Singh’s family members and loved ones. We take the safety and wellbeing of those entrusted to our care with the utmost seriousness,” a spokesman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a statement. “At all of the ICE Processing Centers where GEO provides health care services, individuals are provided with around-the-clock access to medical care.”

Maura Finn is a senior lead attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“We are horrified by the loss of Jaspal Singh while in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the GEO Group,” she said in a statement. “Our hearts go out to his family and loved ones as they face this cruel injustice.”

“We urge the public and federal and state leaders to end the costly and unnecessary detention of immigrants in favor of a more welcoming, sensible and humane immigration process,” she added.

Although President Biden has yet to follow-up on a campaign promise to stop using private facilities for immigrant detention – a promise he reiterated in a Georgia rally in 2021 – his administration has put greater emphasis on digital surveillance programs to monitor migrants ahead of court dates.

For advocates, Singh’s identity as a Sikh triggered memories of past mistreatment of Sikhs by immigration authorities, including requests to remove their turbans, a sacred religious headwear. In 2018, a group of Indian Sikhs detained at Folkston held a hunger strike to protest detention conditions, and alleged they suffered retaliation by prison officials as a result.

“We are deeply concerned about the circumstances of Mr. Singh’s death in light of this history of FIPC violating the human rights of Indian nationals and Sikhs in particular,” said Meredyth Yoon, litigation director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta.

Added Shelly Anand, executive director of the Sur Legal Collaborative, an immigrant and workers’ rights non-profit based in Atlanta: “ICE detention is a South Asian issue, and Jaspal Singh’s death exemplifies that those who are most vulnerable and marginalized within our community face the harshest and cruelest forms of immigration enforcement.”

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