August 31, 2022

Immigrant advocacy organizations seeking answers around Brazilian man’s death by suicide while in ICE custody

Undocumented immigrant children at a U.S. Border Patrol processing center in McAllen, Texas.

Migrant advocacy organizations are raising questions about a Brazilian man’s apparent death by suicide while in U.S. Immigrant and Customs Enforcement custody.

Kesley Vial, a young Brazilian man who sought asylum in the U.S., died on August 24 due to a fatal suicide attempt while housed in the Torrance County Detention Facility on August 17. Several of his friends were the first to respond to Vial, according to Rebecca Sheff, senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.

“They [ICE] have the authority to release anyone from this facility, but they’re refusing to grant releases. It’s pretty drastic and refusing releases to first responders who were close friends – they are deeply traumatized and that’s a concern for us,” Sheff said.

The ACLU, New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, Innovation Law Lab, Justice for Our Neighbors El Paso and New Mexico Dream Team want answers about what led to Vial’s death. Sophia Genovese, a lawyer with New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, said conditions at the Torrance County Detention Facility are “egregious.”

“If they have no money for the commissary, they go starving. They’re hungry. My clients have lost a tremendous amount of weight. They do not have access to clean drinking water,” Genovese said.

She said the water that comes out of faucets in the facility smells “disgusting,” and, at times, there are no other options for drinking water, the men in detention are not always allowed to go outside every day and there is not enough staff. She said the men in detention also experience discrimination in the form of disparaging comments from prison officials.

“All of this weighs heavily on the men incarcerated there. It takes a tremendous toll on their mental health. You can see how that ties into Kesley’s experiences,” she said.

ICE did not respond to a request for comment. A call to Torrance County, which owns the facility, was not returned. Matthew Davio, public affairs manager with CoreCivic, the for-profit company that manages the detention facility, gave an explanation of what happened after prison staff found Vial unresponsive.

“They began life-saving efforts and contacted local paramedics. Emergency medical personnel arrived at the scene, took over efforts to save Mr. Vial’s life, and transported him to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque for further evaluation, where he remained until his passing on August 24,” Davio said.

He said CoreCivic is “cooperating fully” with an ICE review of the incident and that the company “take[s] the health and well-being of every individual in our care very seriously.”

This past spring, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Inspector General issued an alert to ICE to recommend that all individuals housed at the Torrance County facility should be relocated due to reportedly unsanitary and unsafe conditions.

Related: New government report details reportedly unsafe and unsanitary conditions at Torrance County Detention Facility

Prior to that, there were allegations of Haitian asylum seekers lodged at the Torrance facility who were not allowed to exercise their due process rights.

Related: Legal experts say Haitian asylum seekers held at Torrance County Detention Center not allowed due process rights

Exactly what drove Vial, 24, to die by suicide is not clear at this stage, though Sheff said the ACLU is launching an investigation. She said an immigration judge ordered Vial to be deported back to Brazil in June. But that deportation did not take place.

“He could not get basic information from ICE. From what we know, that’s indefinite detention. Since June he expected he would be imminently deported without clear info about when that would happen,” Sheff said.

She said she could not comment, at this stage, if fear of deportation to Brazil may have contributed to Vial’s death by suicide. Asylum seekers are generally fleeing their home country due to gang violence, dangerous climate change conditions and entrenched poverty.  

Related: With shelter beds available in New Mexico, asylum seekers wait across the border in dangerous conditions because of a Trump-imposed policy

Genovese said Vial’s situation was not an anomaly. She said many migrants start their paperwork process to seek asylum but find the process “extremely delayed.”

“They have to wait two months before seeing a judge. They don’t know why it’s happening until they get an attorney who explains the delays because ICE doesn’t explain it to them,” Genovese said.

Sheff said the advocates’ overarching concern is to learn “the extent to which ICE or the facility should have known someone in this situation is considering self-harm.”

“The broader picture is ICE should categorically release anyone from Torrance,” Sheff said.

She said ACLU is also concerned that the federal agency preserves evidence surrounding Vial’s death by suicide so “an outside investigation can be conducted as appropriate.”