The group cites the recent death of Martin Vargas Arellano, who contracted COVID-19 while detained at the notorious Adelanto prison in southern California. ICE steadily refused to release him, even after his advocates noted his preexisting conditions made him particularly vulnerable. Only until he had worsened did officials free him. He died in a hospital three days later. “After releasing him from custody, ICE did not report his death, and Vargas Arellano’s own family and counsel did not find out about his passing until weeks later, after they filed a missing person’s report,” the ACLU said.
“Mr. Vargas Arellano’s case is not an isolated incident. Less than two years before, Jose Ibarra Bucio, a 27-year-old man, suffered a brain hemorrhage while detained at the same Adelanto, California detention center, and fell into a coma. ICE transferred Mr. Ibarra Bucio to a local hospital, where he was placed in an intensive care unit, and soon after released him from custody on an order of recognizance. Mr. Ibarra Bucio never awoke from his coma, and died six weeks later. ICE did not publicly report his death because he was not formally in custody at the time of his death.”
“ICE has reported that nine people have died while in custody as a result of COVID-19, but has declined to publicly report the number of detained people hospitalized due to the virus, or those whom ICE has released from custody and died while hospitalized,” the ACLU continued. The organization hopes internal documents can reveal further information about the number of sick people who died shortly after being released by ICE, including Vargas Arellano and a transgender asylum-seeker who died at a Texas hospital in June 2019.
Johana Medina Leon, who had been a nurse in El Salvador, had “requested IV fluids and a medical evaluation when she became ill,” NBC News reported. Her attorneys said that “[w]hen that request was denied, she requested water, sugar and salt to make her own solution,” the report continued. Sick and frustrated, she reportedly asked to be deported so she could seek care elsewhere. Following her death, her family filed a $20 million wrongful death and personal injury claim against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security.
The ACLU’s request for internal documents comes as ICE detention numbers have nearly doubled from April, from 14,000 to more than 26,000, raising major alarms about continued COVID-19 outbreaks due to the fact that the agency has vaccinated only about 30% of people in its custody. In a letter to lawmakers last month, whistleblowers said rising detention numbers, continued transfers, and lack of widespread vaccinations “continue to threaten the lives of immigrants, staff and the surrounding communities from COVID.”
The ACLU said that a Government Accountability Office report has found that over 200 immigrants have required hospitalization after contracting COVID-19 in detention. “2020 was the deadliest year for detained people in ICE custody in 15 years, with 21 deaths reported. But those are only the deaths we know about,” ACLU National Prison Project senior staff attorney Eunice Cho said. “ICE cannot avoid responsibility for mistreatment and abuse of detained people by releasing them from formal custody only on their deathbeds. The public has a right to understand the full truth and extent of suffering and death caused by ICE detention to hold the government accountable.”