Death of 74-year-old in immigration jail is seen as suicide

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (AP) — A 74-year-old South Korean man died of apparent suicide at a U.S. immigration detention center after advocates said they unsuccessfully sought his release, citing a high risk of his being infected with the coronavirus.

Choung Woong Ahn was found unresponsive in his cell Sunday at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield, California, and efforts to revive him were unsuccessful, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement.

The preliminary cause of death was self-strangulation, but the agency said the case remains under investigation.

Ahn, who had been held at Mesa Verde since Feb. 21, had diabetes, hypertension and heart-related issues, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which identified him as Choung Won Ahn. ICE rejected pleas from a coalition of attorneys to release him on bond.

ICE said Ahn was lawfully admitted to the United States as a permanent resident in 1988 and convicted in 2013 in Alameda County, California, of attempted murder with an enhancement for using a firearm. He was sentenced to 10 years in state prison.

ICE said it took custody of Ahn after his release from prison and that a federal judge denied a request for bond last week while he was in deportation proceedings.

Young Ahn, the deceased’s brother, said he was angry and upset.

“He did not deserve to be treated this way,” he said in a statement released by the ACLU. “He’s a human being, but to them, he’s just a number. There are other people in the same situation. It shouldn’t be happening again.”

The Bakersfield facility has had an average daily population of 334 since Oct. 1 and is managed by The Geo Group Inc. under contract with ICE.

The agency says 1,073 detainees have tested positive for the virus out of 2,172 tested, with no positive test results at the Bakersfield facility. ICE had nearly 28,000 people in its custody nationwide as of May 9.

The Department of Homeland Security’s internal watchdog has opened a nationwide investigation into whether ICE has responded appropriately to the virus to protect staff and detainees, according to a letter released Tuesday by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat.

Also Tuesday, ICE began flying Mexican deportees to Mexico City from San Diego in what authorities said was an effort to reduce the risk of coronavirus spreading in Mexican border cities and in the U.S.

The Border Patrol said in a statement that passengers are medically screened and required to wear masks during flight.

The Border Patrol said the Mexican government chose Mexico City as the destination for the flights originating in San Diego.