The family of a 23-year-old AIDS patient who died in custody at an immigration detention center in San Pedro will file a wrongful death claim against the U.S. government on grounds that Victor Arrelano was improperly denied vital medical treatment.
The allegation of mistreatment comes three weeks to the day after Arrelano, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, died at a San Pedro hospital.
"What happened here is simply an outrage," Roman Silberfeld, the family's attorney, said Friday. "This is someone who never should have been permitted to get to this state of decline when relatively simple meds, if available and properly administered, would have avoided this tragedy."
The death was one of three to come to light this week involving immigration detainees across the U.S. And the fatalities underscore what prison reform advocates have decried as an inadequate, even dangerous, medical system for the nearly 30,000 undocumented immigrants in custody nationwide.
"Based solely on what I have heard so far about the Los Angeles case, I am incredibly disturbed but unfortunately not surprised," said Tom Jawetz, staff attorney for the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C. "We have been in touch with detainees, advocates and attorneys around the country and there is no question that the No. 1 complaint my office receives about detention facilities is poor medical care."
Although they would not discuss individual cases because of privacy issues, immigration and health services officials Friday defended the level of medical care provided to detainees at dozens of facilities in the country.
A Washington spokeswoman for the Division of Immigration Health Services said that on an average day, about 15,000 detainees are screened by division staff, while thousands of other detainees receive contracted medical care at county jails and other detention facilities.
Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for the regional office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, meanwhile, said the agency spends more than $98 million annually providing medical and dental care to detainees. "We want to emphasize the fact that when illegal aliens are in ICE custody, they receive an array of healthcare services," Kice said.
But attorneys and others familiar with the Arrelano case said it is only the most egregious and recent example of a pattern of medical neglect at immigration detention facilities.
Arrelano, a transgender person who went by the name Victoria, had been deported to Mexico in 2003 and was in detention since mid-May pending an immigration hearing to determine whether she would again be returned to Mexico.
During her stay, according to attorneys involved in the case, Arrelano's physical condition deteriorated to the point that her fellow detainees implored the staff to provide medication and other care. One source close to the case recalled how other detainees repeatedly saw Arrelano vomiting blood and were left to clean it up themselves.
Eventually, when her condition became critical, Arrelano was transferred to a San Pedro hospital and died several days later. At the time of her death, according to attorneys in the case, Arrelano was shackled to her bed.
Kice said she could not discuss specifics of the case but explained that when immigration detainees are taken to outside medical facilities for treatment, the security measures are determined by the circumstances of a case, including the condition of a patient and prior criminal history.
Family attorney Silberfeld said the poor treatment of Arrelano was evident in that more than 70 detainees signed a petition urging that she receive immediate medical care. "These are people who are on the verge of being deported and have their cases pending and yet they stand up to the government that could kick them out and say, 'This is wrong,' " Silberfeld said. "To me, that is a pretty powerful statement."
Lorri L. Jean, chief executive of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, said her office was "heartbroken" by word of Arrelano's death because she had been a patient at its AIDS clinic as recently as two years ago and was "certainly nowhere near death" when she was being treated at the facility.
"Given today's medications, people with HIV at the stage that Victoria was at do not decline that quickly," Jean said. "And I have no doubt in my mind that Victoria died because she was denied the medications that she needed to stay alive."
Jean said she and her staff will raise their concerns about Arrelano's death and the San Pedro facility with U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) during a meeting with him Monday.