Revolution #103, October 7, 2007

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Death Under ICE Detention

Victoria Arellano: Shackled and Denied Life-Saving Medicine

Victoria Arellano’s photographs fill her mother’s living room. In one picture Victoria and her friends squeeze together to fit the camera frame. In another picture, Victoria’s smile lit up the photo as she struck a Charlie’s Angel pose full of youthful playfulness and life.

Victoria Arellano was picked up by immigration in May of this year and taken to an Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in San Pedro, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Victoria had been diagnosed with HIV a couple of years ago and was taking medication given to AIDS patients. Although officials at the detention center knew Victoria’s health conditions and special medical needs, she was not given the life-preserving medications she needed to prevent pulmonary infections and to keep her immune system strong enough to fight off any pathogens that could be deadly in her condition while she was in detention.

In July, Olga Arellano—Victoria’s mother—received a call from a hospital where Victoria was hospitalized in grave condition.

When Victoria saw her mother she tried to lift her arms to hug her, but she was too weak to find comfort in her mother’s arms. Olga could barely speak as she described her daughter in her final days.

Victoria was breathing through a respirator and her foot was chained to the bed while two guards stood outside her hospital room.

Victoria died only days later.

* * * *

Victor Arellano was born in Jalisco, Mexico and lived there before making the journey into the U.S. He changed his name to Victoria when he decided to live as a transgender person. Victor’s mother commented that she knew life was difficult for him because he was transgender, but that any mistreatment that he received in daily life was surpassed by the way he was treated while in ICE custody.

Other detainees who were in the same ICE detention center with Victoria noticed her health deteriorating. They repeatedly pleaded with staff to give Victoria the medical treatment she needed. Desperate, some of the detainees called her mother to tell her what was going on. Olga said, “They told me that he was lying in bed all the time, unable to eat and with a high fever, and that he couldn’t get up. They had to pick him up to go to the bathroom and it was a very serious situation, but no one paid attention to them [when they asked for help].”

Walter Ayala, an immigrant from El Salvador who shared a living space with Victoria said, “We made requests to the infirmary asking for help because she was so sick. She wasn’t eating, she had constant diarrhea, and she was vomiting blood. The nurse who responded was totally inhumane. She said, ‘Oh is that the same person you complained to us about before? The doctor hasn’t approved any medication. Just give her Tylenol and water, and it’ll go away.' This happened each time we made a request for six days.”

Fearful that Victoria might die, 80 people staged a protest in the facility. Some chanted “Hospital! Hospital! Hospital!” Fifty-five detainees also signed a petition demanding that she receive the medical treatment she needed.

* * * *

More than 300,000 men, women, and children are detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) each year, their numbers growing as the attacks on immigrants escalate. “It's a system that’s grown rapidly. Ten years ago we had maybe 20,000 people annually in detention. It's just expanded at a tremendous rate due to immigration law changes in the United States," says Michele Garnett McKenzie with the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights.

These detainees, most of whom have no criminal record, are held in over 400 local and state facilities without adequate healthcare services and treated like criminals with their humanity stripped from them. More than 60 people have died in I.C.E. custody since 2004. Among the dead are a pregnant Mexican woman who lost consciousness at a facility in El Paso and a Brazilian man who died in a facility in Rhode Island after his family pleaded with authorities to give him medicine for his epileptic seizures, according to an American Civil Liberties report filed this year.

ICE has refused to comment on Arellano’s case, citing “privacy” issues. Megan McLemore from Human Rights Watch visited the San Pedro detention facility that Victoria was imprisoned in to interview her cellmates and investigate the medical care of HIV/AIDS patients in detention. However, more than 20 people who were witnesses to Victoria’s lack of treatment had already been transferred.


“At times, my Victoria wanted to reposition her body, but she couldn’t because she was shackled,” said Olga Arellano, who asked the guards to unshackle Victoria before she died. “I don’t think any human being deserves that.”

While Victoria’s photographs are a reminder of her life—laughing with friends, holding a rose, doing a cartwheel on the beach—they’re also a reminder of a life stolen too soon. Her humanity was stripped away from the moment the Migra first arrested her and further stripped as she was imprisoned and treated like a criminal for not having “legal” papers--and as if that were not enough, further stripped to the bone as she lay shackled in a hospital bed dying.

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