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Immigration officials say a Brazilian man died recently after being found unresponsive while in custody at the Torrance County Detention Facility in what immigration rights advocates are saying was a suicide attempt after months in “abhorrent conditions.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a news release said 23-year-old Kesley Vial died Aug. 24 at University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque.
“An autopsy is pending to determine the official cause of death,” according to the release.
Sophia Genovese, a senior attorney with the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, said Vial’s cellmate and others at the facility told the group he hung himself.
“They were all very distraught about it,” she said. “We’ve engaged in a lot of investigation alongside the (American Civil Liberties Union) and have spoken directly with the roommates, as well as the several men who helped cut him down.”
An ICE spokeswoman did not respond to a call and email for comment and questions on Saturday.
The incident comes months after the facility in Estancia came under harsh scrutiny by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General, who said migrants there should be moved elsewhere, calling the conditions unsafe and unsanitary after an unannounced inspection in February.
The news led local leaders, particularly U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M, to call on the Biden administration for “increased oversight” of the facility. At the time, CoreCivic, which runs the facility and several others in the state, disputed the findings.
ICE said Vial was caught by Border Patrol agents on April 22 after he came into the country near El Paso and was transferred to ICE custody “to await completion of his removal proceedings.”
On Aug. 17, according to the release, Vial was found unresponsive by staff at the Torrance County facility who began life-saving efforts before he was taken to UNMH.
“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases,” the release states, adding that deaths in ICE custody, statistically, are “exceedingly rare and occur at a fraction of the national average for the U.S. detained population.”
An average stay at the facility is 45 days, according to ICE records, but Vial was there for more than three months.
A GoFundMe set up to get Vial’s remains sent home said he “went in search of the dream of a better life and in the middle of the way lost his dreams and his valuable life!”
“He was arrested on the crossing from Mexico to the United States and lost his life before he had the chance to at least return to Brazil to continue his journey!” according to the GoFundMe page.
More than $8,000 had been raised by Saturday afternoon.
The ACLU of New Mexico in a news release said Vial had been “detained indefinitely” at the facility and was “unable to get clear or consistent information from ICE about when he would be removed.”
The organization said CoreCivic “has proved itself both unwilling and unable to ensure the health and safety of people in its custody.”
Genovese said, “We know this is preventable, advocates have been talking about this, raising the alarm. And now it’s finally happened, what we thought would always happen. Someone has died.”
She said she was in the process of submitting a complaint on the “pretty atrocious” conditions at the facility when they were alerted to the death.
Genovese said the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center gave a presentation on Aug. 19, offering migrants an overview of asylum law, their rights and services, when several men told them a man had hung himself and “they were all really distressed over the situation.”
“It’s coincidental timing, and just really terrible timing,” she said.
Genovese said that, among the complaints the group has received, are: Men are allowed to go outside for only an hour per day, if at all, due to staffing shortages; the food is “inedible”; and there is not enough water. She added that her organization has documented some “pretty egregious statements” made by deportation officers.
She said there are also significant delays in people’s court proceedings, with some waiting upward of two months before seeing a judge.
“That prolongs their detention in a place that is really distressing and really miserable. And so, all of this is driving everyone a little bit towards instability,” Genovese said. “For this gentleman, in particular, it was just too much.”