Drugged Up

Insane asylum seekers?


In December 2004, immigration officials pinned down asylum seeker Raymond Soeoth in his holding cell, pulled down his pants, and forced a syringe into his buttocks. The 38-year-old Christian pastor, who was fleeing religious persecution in Islamic Indonesia, says he had no idea what he was being injected with at the time. His medical records later revealed he had been given Haldol, a powerful psychotropic used in the treatment of schizophrenia and delirium.

Soeoth was about to be deported, and immigration officials say he was forcibly sedated because he had threatened to commit suicide and told officials he wouldn't board the plane. Soeoth denies both claims, saying he had calmly refused a tranquilizer when told he would be shipped back to Indonesia. In any case, Haldol is a treatment for psychosis, not suicidal thoughts. When officials tried to drag the drugged Soeoth onto a commercial plane for deportation, airport security refused to let him board.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California has filed a class action lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security over the forced sedation of people facing deportation, a practice the ACLU calls "routine." Soeoth is joined in the suit by Amadou Diouf, a Senegalese man with no history of mental illness who says he was forcibly injected with antipsychotics on a plane at Los Angeles International Airport. According to the ACLU, the injections violate the Fifth Amendment right to due process and federal law regarding detainees, who are not supposed to be drugged "for staff convenience."

During her renomination hearing in September, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief Julie Myers confirmed the ACLU's claims that Soeoth and Diouf were not isolated cases. She testified that 56 immigrants had been forcibly given antipsychotic drugs over a period of seven months. Like Soeoth, 33 of them had no history of mental illness but were accused of "combative behavior."

Following Myers' testimony, the ACLU filed a motion in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles asking a federal judge to stop the sedations immediately. Both that motion and Soeoth's immigration status are pending. "I know this country [is] very generous to immigrants," he told CNN in broken English. "What they did to me was very, very bad."