In about 2005 I learned that if I can properly document scars of torture for someone who is seeking asylum it greatly increases the odds of their being granted asylum.  So began my passion for human rights medicine and working to bring justice to immigrants seeking asylum in the US. I have interviewed, examined and written up forensic evaluations for well over 600 immigrants seeking asylum. For all of these people they have either been granted asylum or their cases are still pending.

Over the past several years I have also been asked to go into ICE detention centers to again document scars of torture for immigrants seeking asylum. All of these people are detained only because they have asked for asylum, usually upon entering the US. They are not being detained because they are being accused of any other crime.

During the summer of 2018, like many other Americans, I became upset over family separations happening to those arriving at the ports along the southern border.   I began reaching out to human rights doctors and lawyers and became aware that many immigrants being detained in ICE facilities were being denied necessary medical care.

I started building a medical -legal partnership in which lawyers who were working with individuals being denied medical care while being held in detention could contact our group of doctors for an assessment of the individual’s medical risk as a result of having appropriate care withheld. We then wrote medical letters to ICE to describe our findings as a means of advocating for detainees to receive the care they needed and deserved. Some of our letters included  medical assessments such as “Denying HIV infected people their HIV pills would result in their getting sick and dying from a treatable illness.”” Denying surgery for a growing and painful inguinal hernia puts a patient in terrible pain and in grave danger.” “Not treating a patient with a deep osteomyelitis that is now oozing large amounts of pus and giving her a fever will cause her to die from a treatable condition.” 

Until a few months ago, more than half of these letters resulted in the person getting released.  That is no longer the case so I am shifting my energies, though I continue to work on behalf of detained immigrants who are being denied health care.

It has been a rough past 2 weeks. Yoel was seeking asylum from Cuba and his case was profiled on NPR. He had been detained in Louisiana. He has a lung mass which is quite suspicious for lung cancer. Instead of giving him a lung biopsy, ICE kept moving him back and forth from Louisiana to Mississippi. Despite a nationwide outcry from many doctors and members of Congress, he was deported even though his wife is a US citizen wife living in Florida.  Two days later the US Supreme Court ruled that people seeking asylum have to wait in extremely dangerous conditions in Mexico without being allowed to enter the US. And then 2 more days later, I testified on behalf of a woman seeking asylum. Since she is not being provided appropriate medical care her neurological degenerative disease is getting worse. The judge spent most of his time grilling me over details that had no relevance at all to what I was trying to tell him.

Which leads me to why I joined D4CC. Doctors for Camp Closure. There is no healthy amount of time for any man, woman or child to be behind bars, denied the basics of human health and dignity. Seeking safety and asylum in the US should not result in inhumane, dangerous incarceration.  We have already seen the results with multiple adults and children dying in ICE custody. Spread the word and let’s work together to put an end to mass incarceration of people who deserve our care not condemnation.

Kate Sugarman, MD
Family Physician

Kate Sugarman, MD is a family physician in Washington DC. She is also an HIV physician. She is passionate about immigrant justice. She enjoys running and reading. She can be followed on Facebook @KateSugarman