Two civil rights groups have urged the Department of Homeland Security to investigate the death of a transgender inmate at a San Pedro immigration detention center on grounds that the 23-year-old with AIDS was denied vital medical treatment.
In a letter sent to the department's Office of Inspector General on Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and New York-based Human Rights Watch also called for an inquiry into the apparent transfer to other immigration facilities of more than 20 detainees who saw the events leading up to the death of Victor Arellano on July 20.
The transfers, according to the organizations, occurred less than 24 hours before a Human Rights Watch official went to the San Pedro facility to interview some of the detainees.
Two of the witnesses were moved to an immigration facility in Texas, and the whereabouts of the others are unknown, the organizations said.
"The transfer of those witnesses not only affects their ability to defend themselves by disrupting access to family and legal counsel, but makes it more difficult to interview them for an investigation into Arellano's death," said Megan McLemore, the Human Rights Watch researcher.
She visited the facility on Aug. 22 and was one of the letter's authors.
McLemore said she visited the San Pedro facility to interview two other HIV/AIDS patients and Arellano's cellmates as part of a report on medical care for such patients in detention.
But upon her arrival, she said, she discovered that more than 20 witnesses, all of whom had signed a petition protesting Arellano's treatment, had been transferred.
Arellano's death has sparked an outcry among immigration rights officials and organizations that monitor the health of prisoners in federal and state facilities nationwide.
About 30,000 illegal immigrants are in detention facilities throughout the country.
Two other unrelated deaths of detainees earlier this year triggered an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General into the quality of medical care at federal detention centers, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) confirmed Tuesday.
At the direction of the inspector general, the spokeswoman said, Waxman's office earlier this month approached the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Civil Rights to ask if Arellano's death could be investigated.
The agency has yet to respond.
Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said privacy laws prevented the agency from discussing details of treatment.
But she said the agency spends more than $98 million annually on detainee medical services.
She said that all detainees in ICE custody undergo a medical screening and that those with acute or chronic healthcare needs are referred to a physician or nurse practitioner.
Those with infectious diseases are placed in healthcare facilities.
Even so, Kice said, "the public must realize that when individuals come into ICE custody with severe health problems or terminal illnesses, regardless of the treatment they receive, there is the potential they will succumb to their condition."
When a detainee dies, whether from natural causes or other circumstances, the matter is referred to the agency's Office of Professional Responsibility to determine whether further investigation is warranted, Kice said.
In their letter, Human Rights Watch and the local ACLU chapter said witnesses alleged that the ICE staff at the San Pedro facility did not respond in a timely fashion to "numerous and increasingly desperate requests for urgent medical care" for Arellano, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico.
"Detainees have alleged that despite being aware that Arellano was a person with HIV who was in need of life-sustaining medication, [the San Pedro facility's] medical care providers did not provide appropriate care, causing Arellano needless suffering and ultimately leading to his tragic and painful death," the letter said.
Arellano, who went by the name Victoria and was deported to Mexico in 2003, had been held in detention since mid-May pending an immigration hearing to determine whether she should again be returned to Mexico.
Attorneys for the family have said that Arellano's condition deteriorated to the point that fellow inmates pleaded with the medical staff at the immigration facility to provide her care.
One witness' account recalled how other detainees repeatedly saw Arellano vomiting blood.
The detainees were left to clean it up themselves, the witness said.
When her condition became life-threatening, Arellano was transferred to a San Pedro hospital and died after several days.
At the time of her death, attorneys in the case say, she was still shackled to her bed.
Meanwhile, the Arellano family is preparing to file a wrongful death claim against the U.S. government over allegations that she was denied vital medical care.