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Death of trans immigrant in detention forges united protests

Published Sep 8, 2007 11:29 AM

Victoria Arellano

Olga Arellano spoke at a rally at the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 27 about how her 23-year-old daughter, Victoria, died July 20 at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) federal detention facility in South Los Angeles.

“I can only find the strength to talk about this because I want people to know what is going on inside that place,” Olga Arellano stated. “I don’t want another family to have to live through this nightmare.” (Daily Journal, Aug. 9)

Authorities reportedly refused to give Victoria Arellano—an undocumented Mexican transwoman with AIDS—urgently needed medical attention and her critically necessary prescribed antibiotic, despite mass protests on her behalf by other immigrant detainees. Authorities had imprisoned her since May in a men’s mass detention cell.

Outrage over Victoria Arellano’s death is forging a coalition of organizations that fight for immigrant rights, AIDS care, and trans, lesbian, gay and bisexual rights. The bilingual Los Angeles vigil and media conference was called by Arellano’s family and Bienestar—a Latin@ community service and advocacy organization working to meet the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS.

The Aug. 26 call for the vigil was signed by Grupo de Apoyo HIVIDA in Ciudad Juárez, México, and the following California-based groups: Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California; API Equality; Garment Workers Center; Homies Unidos; Coalition of Humane Immigration Rights of Los Angeles; Club Napa Gay; QTeam; Gay and Straight Alliance Network; Inlakech; SELA HIV Prevention Program; Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center; Transgender Law Center; The Wall Las Memorias Project; and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

National organizations included the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF); National Immigrant Solidarity Network; Project Islamic HOPE; Lambda Legal; and the Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Coalición de Derechos Humanos—Arizona; Immigration Equality—N.Y.; and Esperanza Peace and Justice Center of Texas endorsed.

The immigrant rights March 25 Coalition and the Troops Out Now Coalition supported and publicized the vigil.

Bienestar communications manager, Coral Lopez, said: “This case exemplifies what we’ve been saying for all these years—immigration is in fact an LGBT issue. Victoria’s unfortunate death demonstrates why we need to be working in coalition on these issues.”

A solidarity vigil for Victoria Arellano was also held Aug. 28 at the Federal Building in Tucson, Ariz. Sponsoring groups included Derechos Humanos, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, May 1st Coalition, Borderland Theater, Fundación México, Tucson Samaritans, Salt of the Earth Labor College, Humane Borders and Wingspan—Southern Arizona’s LGBT community center.

That vigil called for socially just legislation, an end to deaths at the border, an end to raids, a moratorium on immigration detentions and deportations, restoration and expansion of the due process rights of all immigrants and protection and expansion of the labor, human and civil rights of all immigrants and refugees.

Prisoners protested for Victoria

Victoria Arellano, whose birth name was Víctor, came to the U.S. as a child. As a young adult, she worked at a supermarket in West Hollywood while volunteering at a drug and alcohol treatment facility.

Three years before her detention, she was medically described as “asymptomatic.” She was prescribed a dose of antibiotics—first bactrim and later dapasone—designed to stave off pulmonary infections that could lead to pneumonia.

Arellano was swept up by ICE agents in May and denied medication while in detention facing deportation.

“The consequences of taking someone off that medication,” observed Homayoon Khanlou, chief of medicine for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, “is that within a few weeks a patient may unfortunately develop pneumonia and then not respond to treatment.” (Daily Journal, Aug. 9)

She was held in a mass cell designed to bunk 50 men, but in which some 80 prisoners were crammed.

If the tenderness of the solidarity that the immigrant men showed to Arellano could have saved her life, she would still be alive.

The respect for her as a trans prisoner can be heard in the quotes by the men jailed with her, who described in an Aug. 9 Daily Journal report how Arellano lay in a bunk bed suffering from excruciating headaches, stomach cramps and back pain.

Prisoner Oscar Santander recalled, “We all asked the guards for help, to take Victoria to the infirmary, but no one did anything.”

In the last two weeks of her life, prisoner Walter Ayala said, “She was so sick that if you tried to move her she would scream.”

He stressed, “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.”

The men described how they used their bath towels soaked in cold water to try to bring down her fever and brought cardboard boxes for her to throw up into. The immigrant detainees cleaned up the blood and vomit.

Under pressure from those imprisoned with Arellano, on July 13 the detention center infirmary gave her a prescription for amoxicillin, which is not an antibiotic used to treat AIDS-related infections, medical experts noted.

Less than a day later she was back in the cell. Arellano couldn’t stomach the drugs and threw up blood, Santander said.

“The last week was the worst,” he stressed. “She couldn’t stand so we took turns taking her to the bathroom.”

Prisoner Abel Gutierrez said, “She was so sick and they wouldn’t do anything.” Gutierrez described how that night, 80 of her fellow prisoners defied the order to line up for evening head count, and staged a protest on Arellano’s behalf.

Gutierrez said the detainees chanted one word loudly in unison, over and over: “Hospital!”

More than 70 of the prisoners signed a petition demanding immediate medical care for Arellano.

The mass demonstration by prisoners forced officials to call an ambulance. Arellano was taken to the intensive care unit of Little Company of Mary Hospital.

There, although she was too weak to stand and on a respirator, Arellano’s mother found her daughter chained to a hospital bed, while two immigration agents stood at the door.

Olga Arellano said, “At times, my Victoria wanted to reposition her body, but she couldn’t because she was shackled.” Guards refused the mother’s request to unchain her daughter, who died two days later.

Medical neglect is lynching

After Arellano’s death, her fellow prisoners collected $245 from what little money they had and sent it to the Arellano family. (Daily Journal)

Arellano family attorney Roman Silberfeld stressed the solidarity shown by the more than 70 detainees who petitioned authorities for immediate care for a fellow prisoner. “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.’” (Los Angeles Times, Aug. 11)

More than 20 of the men who contacted outside help on Arellano’s behalf or witnessed her mistreatment were reportedly transferred out of the Los Angeles area, which disrupted their legal consultations and family visits. (hrw.org)

Bardis Vakili, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, added that some of the detainees who were transferred were not allowed to bring their legal papers, although they were days from court hearings. “This means these men don’t have access to their immigration paperwork, or the research they did on their case. Many of them are representing themselves and this makes it very difficult for them.”

The Arellano family announced plans to file a wrongful death claim against the Department of Homeland Security and other U.S. government agencies.

Arellano was the third prisoner known to have died at the San Pedro center. Since Arellano’s death, a pregnant Mexican woman in El Paso and a Brazilian man in Rhode Island have died in immigration custody. A total of 62 prisoners are known to have died in federal immigration detention since 2004.

Close to 30,000 immigrants are believed to be imprisoned in some 400 privately run and federal detention centers and jails. (Los Angeles Times, Aug. 11)

Confiscation of badly needed medication and refusing life-and-death medical attention are lynchings. Solidarity—the kind of unity that Victoria Arellano inspired—is a powerful weapon against this war of terror being waged against the undocumented immigrant population in the U.S.