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ICE said a 74-year-old was too dangerous to release. He died of apparent suicide

Choung Woong Ahn
Choung Woong Ahn, 74, died by suicide at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield.
(Priya Patel)

The way Choung Woong Ahn’s family sees it, the 74-year-old South Korean immigrant should not have been in the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center when he took his last breath.

Lawyers for Ahn had submitted three requests for his release amid the coronavirus pandemic. All were rejected, the most recent by a U.S. district judge on May 13. On Sunday, he died by suicide.

From the perspective of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Ahn was exactly where he should have been.

He spent eight years at Solano State Prison in Vacaville for attempted murder with a firearm. After his sentence was served, he was transferred to the immigrant detention facility in Bakersfield in February for deportation proceedings.

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Ahn’s criminal history made him too much of a public threat to qualify for release, according to ICE. Spokesman Jonathan Moor said that ICE has gone through a deliberative process for COVID-19 “to make sure that only the people who absolutely need to be in detention” remain there.

Ahn, who arrived in the U.S. from South Korea as a permanent resident in 1988, had health issues including lung cancer, diabetes, hypertension and a history of heart attacks, his family said. They said keeping a man of his age and with his infirmities in detention was cruel while COVID-19 bears down on so many people in such institutions.

Hunger strikers at Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield
Hunger strikers at Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield captured by drone during a sit-in protest on April 10.
(California Committee for Immigrant Liberation)

Correctional and detention facilities are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks. More than 900 inmates in a federal prison in Lompoc contracted the virus, the worst outbreak in the federal prison system. And in San Diego, 151 detainees at Otay Mesa Detention Center have tested positive and one has died, the largest outbreak in the immigration detention system. No cases have yet been confirmed at Mesa Verde.

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Just before a scheduled immigration court hearing last week, Ahn was taken to a local hospital for severe chest pain, where he tested negative for COVID-19. He returned to Mesa Verde the next night.

Young Ahn, 66, said his brother pleaded to be returned to the general population but was told he needed to stay in quarantine isolation for 14 days. In protest, he began refusing meals.

Choung Woong Ahn had a history of suicide attempts, according to a court document and his lawyer.

“If they knew he had a suicidal mind, then he shouldn’t be put in an isolation room all by himself” Young Ahn said.

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Choung Woong Ahn called his brother several hours before his death. They talked about preparing for his court hearing, which had been rescheduled for Tuesday. He told Young Ahn, “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

According to a court declaration, Choung Woong Ahn fired a shot at two men who came to the aid of a woman whom he beat and threatened to kill at a dry cleaning business. The bullet missed and lodged in a wall. Sheriff’s deputies labeled the incident in October 2011 as domestic violence-related.

“These are mandatory detentions based on what Congress has outlined for us, including Mr. Ahn’s case,” Moor said. “Based on the nature of what his conviction is, I would have to say that was the primary reason why.”

But Choung Woong Ahn’s lawyer, Priya Patel with Centro Legal, said his death is a systemic failure by ICE, the private prison company GEO Group, which manages the facility, and California officials who have oversight over detention facilities.

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Patel said she thought, given his age and medical issues, the federal judge would agree with her perspective about his case.

She said he had expressed fear about getting coronavirus. He had been watching the news and knew how dangerous the situation was and that he was vulnerable.

“There were many, many ways it could have been prevented,” she said. “On a pretty micro level, he shouldn’t have been unmonitored in segregation. And also, on a macro level, he should’ve been released.”

ICE said the death is under investigation.

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“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,” said Moor.

Young Ahn said his brother finished high school in South Korea and worked as a real estate developer until a new government limited development and his business tanked. A few years later, his older sister petitioned for him to join her in California, where he dedicated himself to selling luggage at flea markets.

Another sister who lives near San Jose visited Choung Woong Ahn nearly every weekend after he went to prison. Two weeks ago, ICE had requested her address and phone number to keep on file.

She had arranged for him to live with her and purchased some clothes and shoes for him in case he was released during the pandemic. But Young Ahn said the family had also begun longer-term planning for his deportation and to help him resettle in South Korea.

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Young Ahn said he’s angry about the way his brother died.

“Some people say, ‘Well he has a criminal record.’ But he paid his due, OK?” he said. “He served the full term. He has a lot of remorse, a lot of regret.”


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