Now that health care legislation has passed the House of Representatives, all eyes are on the Senate. Will the U.S. Congress send President Obama a heath care bill he can sign? Stay tuned.

But while Congress considers health care reform, including whether or not to include a “public option”, too many immigrant detainees find themselves with no health care option at all. Since 2003 a staggering 105 detainees have died while locked up by ICE. The latest fatality, Pedro Juan Tavarez, died recently at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The circumstances surrounding his death are, to say the least, murky. On its website, ICE reported Tavaraz’s death in cold “bureaucrat speak” as follows,

Detainee passes away at Boston hospital
BOSTON – On Oct. 19, Pedro Juan Tavarez, a 49-year-old national of the Dominican Republic being held on immigration violations, passed away at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Mass.
On October 16, The Suffolk County House of Correction, where he was detained by ICE, transported Tavarez to the hospital after medical staff suggested possible pneumonia. The hospital diagnosed him with heart and respiratory conditions for which he was being treated.
Tavarez’s family was at the hospital with him when he passed away and was able to consult with medical staff on decisions concerning his medical treatment. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) notified the Consulate General of the Dominican Republic of Tavarez’s passing. Additionally, the appropriate state health authorities have been notified. The medical examiner’s office has not determined an official cause of death and will determine if an autopsy is necessary.

ICE’s carefully chosen words reveal that Tavarez, a relatively young man, was transported to the hospital only “after [ICE] medical staff suggested possible pneumonia”, but that once he reached the hospital he was diagnosed with heart and respiratory conditions “for which he was being treated”. Apparently ICE “medical staff”—it’s not clear whether the staff included a licensed physician—had no idea what was wrong with Mr. Tavarez. The phrase “for which he was being treated” suggests his heart condition was only diagnosed and treated after he left ICE detention and was examined by doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The ICE death announcement raises troubling questions. How long had Mr. Tavarez been ill? Did he have a history of heart problems before he was taken into custody by ICE? When did he first seek medical attention from ICE? Did the ICE detention facility’s medical staff include a physician? How long did Mr. Tavarez have to wait before he was examined by a doctor? How much time passed before ICE medical staff decided to transfer him to a hospital for appropriate medical care? Could his life have been saved had his illness been properly diagnosed and treated sooner?

Mr. Tavarez’s case has received only limited media attention. But his death adds to the increasing number of immigrants who have died in ICE custody.

ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton has pledged to design an immigration detention system that truly reflects the civil nature of immigration law. Let’s hope he makes good on his promise. In the meantime, he can start by ensuring that ICE detention is not a death sentence for an immigrant who is unfortunate enough to take seriously ill while in custody.