ICE Detainee Died After Life Support Was Pulled, Despite Family's Objections

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Public Domain
JakeThomas

Nebane Abienwi fled to the United States from war-torn Cameroon this summer, hoping to claim asylum and eventually bring his wife and six children to the country to escape the dangers of their homeland.

But Abienwi was detained upon presenting himself legally at the southern U.S. border, and by October 1, he was lying in a U.S. hospital on life support.

What happened next is akin to murder: Despite Abienwi’s family asking that he stay on the ventilator until they could come to be with him, doctors declared the 37-year-old brain dead, pulled his breathing tube, and pronounced him dead.

Albienwi’s youngest brother, Akongnwi, has spent more than a month trying to obtain his sibling’s remains, he told USA Today. Akongnwi wants to ask the doctors why they ignored the family’s wishes and allowed his brother to die before a relative could arrive. He also “wants to make sure it's really his brother's body and to perform cultural rites on the body before the casket is sealed.”

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Abienwi was detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego when he suffered a “medical emergency” in the middle of the night.

Doctors at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center determined the asylum seeker was bleeding profusely in his brain and required a ventilator to breathe.

USA Today said an ICE statement released after the man’s death indicated he was “undergoing treatment for a brain hemorrhage” after experiencing "a hypertensive event" in the middle of the night on September 26.

In his Detainee Death Report published by the agency, ICE officials said Abienwi fell off the top bunk bed in his cell, "landed on blankets on a chair, and sat on the floor." A nurse found him “confused, sweating, experiencing ‘jerky movements’ in all extremities and complaining of thirst,” according to the report. The incident occurred at 3:46 a.m.

Abienwi was taken to the hospital at 3:50 a.m., the report states, where he was admitted to the intensive care unit with severe “bleeding within the brain.”

Over the course of a few days, he experienced "declining neurological examinations,” and on October 1, doctors decided to remove him from the ventilator.

Akongnwi said that after ICE contacted his brother’s wife and doctors told the family Abienwi’s prognosis, the relatives agreed that life support should continue until someone could reach the U.S. to be with him.

"The family spoke and said, 'We believe in miracles. It has happened to other families, why not ours?' " Akongnwi said. When he next spoke with ICE officials, he said he “made clear that he should remain like that and the family would decide if we want to take him off that machine or not."

Though ICE would not comment on Abienwi’s death, the agency said it works with relatives of detainees "to the extent possible to ensure they can participate in decisions” when medical care is required; however, decisions are ultimately left to medical staff caring for the detainee.

Akongnwi tried twice to obtain a visa to come to the U.S. and retrieve his brother’s body. Both attempts were fruitless. Applying for a visa at the U.S. Embassy in Johannesburg, Akongnwi was denied because he “either did not demonstrate strong ties outside the United States today” or was unable to demonstrate that his “intended activities in the U.S. would be consistent with the visa status.”

The father of a 5-month-old son currently lives in South Africa where he “runs a company that fixes, buys and sells cars.”

Akongnwi tried again in his native Cameroon, he told USA Today, but he had no better luck there: "They asked me, 'Are you going to apply for asylum like your brother was doing?' " he said. "I could not believe it. I explained why I was going, that I'm running around to see that my brother is put to rest."

He was denied a second time.

Akongnwi arranged for a funeral home in California to take his brother’s body out of the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office, but now he has no idea how he will bring his brother home.

"We lost our parents when I was young, and Neba has been taking care of us since then," Akongnwi said. "Every day, I receive 30 phone calls from family members asking what's happening, and I don't know. I don't even know if I'm OK. I don't know if something is wrong with me.

"I don't know if I'm dead or still living."

Abienwi is the ninth detainee to die in ICE custody over the past year, USA Today reported.

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