Family says asylum-seeker in ICE custody was removed from life support against their wishes

Family says asylum-seeker in ICE custody was removed from life support against their wishes

Relatives of a Cameroonian asylum-seeker who was removed from life support in Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody say the move transpired despite their requests that life support be continued, according to USA Today.

ICE said Nebane Abienwi, a father of six, died Oct. 1 after being detained at San Diego’s Otay Mesa Detention Center following a "medical emergency." Since then, his relatives have reportedly been unable to obtain all the information about his death they have requested and his brother has twice been denied a visa to travel overseas to identify the body and bring it home.

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"We did not approve" Abienwi’s removal from a ventilator, his brother Akongnwi, who requested he be identified only by his last name, told USA Today. "One hundred percent, we did not."

In addition to confirming the body is his brother's and performing cultural rites on it before the casket can be sealed, Akongnwi is attempting to travel to the U.S. to ask officials why this step was taken without consulting his family.

He told the newspaper he spoke by phone with ICE several times since they first informed him his brother was critically ill on Sept. 30 and passed the phone over to Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, where staff told him a ventilator was all that was keeping him alive amid profuse bleeding in his brain.

After consulting with Abienwi’s wife and other relatives and loved ones, Akongnwi said, they decided to keep him on life support at least until a relative could travel to his bedside.

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

Regardless, according to ICE records, he was pronounced dead on the afternoon of Oct. 1 after two doctors concluded his examination results were consistent with brain death, after which they notified his family and hospital staff discontinued ventilator support.

ICE told The Hill that, under agency protocols, "the authority to make medical decisions lies with the hospital once a detainee is admitted. ICE works with the family to the extent possible to ensure they can participate in decisions, and hospitals also have their own policies on identifying and working with next-of-kin." 

Akongnwi said he only learned life support had been ended when he was contacted by a reporter seeking comment after ICE released its own summary. "They said, 'It's very unfortunate, but your brother didn't make it,'" he said.

The Hill has reached out to Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center for comment.

—Updated at 5:03 p.m.