U.S. immigration officials report few deaths in custody each year. But if a person is released just before death, ICE doesn't need to report it.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which detains hundreds of thousands of people nationwide, typically says fewer than a dozen detainees die in its custody each year. But if the agency releases a person in dire health, they're not in custody when they die — so ICE doesn't need to count that death.
Today, L.A. Times immigration reporter Andrea Castillo tells the stories of two people who were abruptly released by ICE just days before their deaths and pulls back the curtain on the system that allows this to happen. Read the full transcript here.
Gustavo Arellano: Last year, attorney Margaret Hellerstein received some unexpected news about her client from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, a.k.a. ICE.
Margaret Hellerstein: So February 22nd, I received a call from ICE letting me know they were considering releasing him.
GA: Her client, Martin Vargas Arellano, was likely going to be set free from a detention center in San Bernardino County. But after that notice, Margaret heard…nothing.
MH: He didn't call me. Nobody called me.
GA: She eventually had to file a missing persons report to try and track down Martin.
MH: We called homeless shelters, police stations…
GA: That’s when she found out something disturbing.
MH: The officer said, Oh, he was released on March 5th.
GA: ICE had released him to a hospital, while he was comatose… and then he died.
I’m Gustavo Arellano. You’re listening to The Times: daily news from the LAT. It’s Friday May 20th, 2022.
Today, we dive into ICE’s disturbing practice of releasing detainees on the verge of death.
My colleague Andrea Castillo covers immigration for The Times. Andrea, welcome to the Times.
Andrea Castillo: Thanks for having me, Gustavo.
GA: So, Martin Vargas Arellano. Who was he?
AC: So Martin was a 55-year-old immigrant from Mexico. He came to the U.S. at the age of three and was applying for a status similar to asylum. His lawyer Margaret…she said that he’s… pretty reserved.
MH: he was a quiet guy. He was very polite. the one thing he kept saying over and over pre-COVID is, I'm tired, ma'am. I'm so tired. And he said he just wanted to live a quiet life.
AC: He also had a bunch of illnesses - diabetes, hepatitis C, hypertension
MH: Cellulitis, gout.
AC: Arthritis and schizophrenia.
MH: He looked a lot older than his age. He was disabled. He used a wheelchair a lot of the time.
AC: And even while he was detained, he was frequently in and out of the hospital.
MH: So a lot of 2020, I was really unable to contact him because he would go to the hospital for cellulitis and then he would come back and have to be quarantined for two weeks. So I don't know how much time he even spent in his dorm. He was usually just handcuffed to a bed in a hospital somewhere or essentially in solitary confinement.
AC: So Martin was convicted in 1985 of committing lewd or lascivious acts with a minor under 14 when he was also underage.
He was picked up for a number of petty crimes over the years, including theft.
He had been in ICE custody since April of 2019. Margaret told me that after he had a psychotic break, he had failed to register as a sex offender for the first time ever.
MH: He had never had legal status. He was brought to the U.S. when he was three and he was never eligible for any legal status, and especially after he got into trouble, that was just not going to happen.
AC: And Margaret said that detention really took a toll on him. She worried he would die if he didn’t get out. She made all these requests for Martin’s release from detention based on his health conditions. A federal judge ordered his release early in the pandemic, but his housing fell through. By the time Margaret could secure a new housing arrangement for him, other litigation prevented his release.
GA: While ICE detained him, how was he treated?
Andrea: He actually contracted COVID 19 in December of 2020.
MH: When he first came down with symptoms. He had shortness of breath, burning lungs, fever, dry cough and a loss of taste and smell.
AC: Three months later, an ICE agent told Margaret that the agency was actually considering releasing Martin.
MH: And I was obviously very excited to hear that.
AC: So she started making arrangements for a driver to come pick him up and take him to a halfway house.
MH: I gave the officer that information. I didn't hear from them for a couple of days. I called the officer back, the one who had said they were considering releasing him. And the guy said something about the higher ups, which is what they always say, and that they weren't sure at that point about releasing him. The next time I heard from them, they called me saying that he was going into surgery and they asked me about next of kin and I asked them, you know, do I need to be concerned what's going on? And they said, No, no, everything's fine. [00:05:44][35.9]
AC: But what she didn't know was that ICE had actually released him in a hospital and that his health was declining fast.
MH: I remember one of the last times that we spoke on the phone, he said that he could barely even sit up to speak on the phone. He had to end the call.
AC: On March 3rd, Martin suffered a stroke and he fell into a coma. He died March 8th, 2021, three days after he was released from ICE custody and while he was on life support.
MH: So I was waiting to hear from them about his release. He didn't call me. Nobody called me.
AC: Ten days went by before Margaret learned of Martin's death. She had to file a missing persons report and call the coroner's office.
MH: I had people helping me call hospitals in the area. We called homeless shelters, police stations. I put in a missing persons report. I started to suspect that he had passed away.
The following day, I called the Orange County Coroner's Office, and they confirmed that he had passed away at that hospital in Orange County on March 8th.
GA: We’ll be right back.
GA: So Andrea, Martin Vargas Arellano died at a nearby hospital right after ICE released him from their detention facility. How did that come about?
AC: A court-appointed investigation into Martin’s death led to a scathing special master’s report last July on the actions of ICE, Adelanto and its contracted healthcare provider, Wellpath. The report notes that the decision to release Martin when he was near death resulted in his being “moved off the ‘books’” at ICE and Adelanto.
The report says that: “Because ICE released him to the hospital, all three were relieved of their obligations to report his death,” and it says, quote, “this seems to have been the sole purpose of the release.”
I talked to a doctor specializing in correctional healthcare – Dr. Marc Stern. He previously served as an expert for DHS’ Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which investigates detention complaints. Dr. Stern said it could be more fiscally responsible to release someone from custody who is hospitalized. That way, the government can avoid spending taxpayer money to staff guards who oversee hospitalized detainees and paying medical bills that some hospitals would already cover for low-income patients.
Marc Stern: While they are under the auspices of the correctional or detention facility, that facility is responsible for paying for their their hospital bill and their doctor's bills, whereas if they release them, they now become the responsibility of the community in whatever way they had of paying, whether it's insurance or out of out of pocket. [00:07:09][50.6]
AC: But Dr. Stern said that releasing sick detainees could also be politically motivated
MS: One of the advantages of doing that is that because of the definitions of death, they no longer have to report that death. That death no longer accrues to them, is no longer something that is on their list.
AC: I started reporting ICE began recording in-custody deaths in 2009 as part of a bunch of reforms during the Obama administration. That same year, ICE officials admitted to omitting one in 10 detainee deaths in a list the agency delivered to Congress. Then in 2018, Congress required ICE to publicly release reports on every in-custody death within 90 days.
Dr. Stern told me that even though some deaths aren’t preventable, all deaths should be reportable when you’re talking about someone whose health deteriorated under ICE’s watch.
MS: We have to understand that some of them are avoidable and some of them are not. But if we're going to report them all, we have to report them all.
GA: What are advocacy groups doing in response to these deaths?
AC: So…Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit…They wanted records about the deaths of people who were released from custody while hospitalized… In that lawsuit… the ACLU names Martin and four other people. And the thing is…ICE has consistently claimed fewer than a dozen detainees die in custody every year.
Recorded deaths have remained low even during the pandemic. ICE reported a high of 21 deaths in 2020 and just five deaths for all of 2021. Zero deaths have been recorded so far in 2022.
GA: How has ICE responded?
AC: So…ICE isn’t saying much….They’ve declined to comment on Martin’s case and all of the other cases we looked into.
But…a spokeswoman said the agency takes the health safety and welfare of people in its care really seriously. She also said the agency’s policy around reviewing detainee deaths was updated last October….and now includes the option to review deaths that happen within a month of someone’s release from custody when that’s appropriate.
GA: We’ll be back…after a quick break.
GA: Andrea…You mentioned the ACLU lawsuit that names Martin and four other people. What do we know about their stories?
Andrea: We’ve found several other cases, including the others mentioned in the lawsuit. One of those is 25-year-old Johana Medina Leon, who spent years advocating for the LGBTQ community and HIV awareness before she fled violence as a transgender woman herself in El Salvador. Johana was a nurse technician and had hoped to start a new life in California.
Alexia Sanchez (in spanish): I met Johana at a gathering around eight or nine years ago. We met while organizing around human rights.
AC: So I talked to her friend Alexia Sanchez. She said that she met Johanna at a gathering around eight or nine years ago. They met while they were organizing around human rights.
Alexia described Johanna as this fun, friendly person. Total problem solver. She said that she would amp up the other activists who were in their group because she had this uncanny ability to say the right thing at the right time.
AS (in spanish): Fun, friendly, a problem solver. She would amp up the other activists in their group because she had the ability to say the right thing at exactly the right time.
AC: But just over a month after she was detained by ICE and booked into the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico, her health started declining quickly. She was transferred to an El Paso hospital where she died on June 1, 2019.
Johana’s name wasn’t among the nine deaths recorded by ICE that year. She had been released from custody while she was hospitalized, four days before she died. And she eventually succumbed to the same failures in medical care she had worked to prevent for others.
GA: What are some of the other stories that you uncovered?
AC: So except for Johanna, the other three people who are named in the lawsuit were people who, like Mark Martin, had been released from ICE custody while they were in comas and died a few days later. I discovered during the reporting process is someone who had attempted suicide at the Adelanto facility in the Inland Empire and he ended up on life support. ICE released him from custody afterward while he was hospitalized, and he still remains on life support today.
GA: ICE, when these things happen, they're not exactly broadcasting all of this. So how were you able to find the stories?
Andrea: Yeah. So all of the circumstances surrounding Johana’s release and death were discovered among more than 16,000 pages of documents disclosed as part of an ongoing lawsuit that we brought against the Department of Homeland Security. We’ve been seeking records of abuse at immigration detention centers. Her case was investigated by the Office of Inspector General, a watchdog agency that oversees ICE.
And we found that Johana had gone from 126 to 103 pounds in the short period she was detained. She made several requests to be seen by a doctor and complained of stomach pain, vomiting and nausea. She developed a rash on her forehead. But nurses had only given her antacids and chalked up her condition to spicy food at the facility.
A nurse flagged her case as “serious,” jotting down a growing list of symptoms that included weakness, a sore throat, cough and acid reflux. She referred Johana to Otero’s on-call nurse practitioner. But the visit never took place. He told investigators he hadn’t been alerted about her case and that he felt someone should have called him.
In court depositions, nurses who treated Johana said that, at the time, Otero staff relied on a paper system to refer detainees’ medical requests to providers. Under that system, one staffer testified, it could take "a couple days" for a provider to respond to a referral.
By the time Johana saw a doctor May 27, 2019, her skin had yellowed, her temperature was fluctuating and her heart rate was slowing. Staff ordered an HIV test and the next day it came back positive.
By then, she was dizzy and complained of chest pains. Staff called an ambulance and rushed her to a medical facility in El Paso.
Emails we reviewed show immigration officials moved with unusual speed to remove Johana from custody.
ICE’s field medical coordinator initiated the rapid-fire process on May 28, recommending Johana be released from Otero. The facility is operated by Management and Training Corporation, one of the nation’s largest private prison companies. “If this detainee were to become further seriously ill there is a potential for a poor outcome,” the official wrote, noting that she was “so underweight.”
So within hours of her arriving to the hospital, two ICE agents arrived and gave her parole paperwork for her to sign.
One of the agents later told investigators that he knew the process was being rushed but “was not aware of the reasons” for that. He said had never served parole documents at a hospital before.
So…four days later Johana was dead …..and her death certificate says she died of sepsis, with pneumonia and HIV as underlying causes.
Healthcare experts we spoke to said deaths like hers are avoidable.
GA: How did her family and friends react when they learned the details of her death?
AC: They were understandably distraught. Her parents declined to be interviewed, but her longtime friend Alexia said it was a really tough blow to find out Johana had died. And she found out around the same time that Alexia herself made it to the U.S. to seek asylum.
AS (in Spanish): I found out about Johana’s death months later, about four or five months later. I was so surprised, I couldn’t believe it.
AC: Alexia told me that she found out about Johanna's death four or five months after the fact. She said that she was so surprised she almost couldn't believe it. A friend had told her. And she said, “What? How is it possible that someone looking for the American dream could end up with bad things happening to them.”
And she said that all she and Johanna and other women like them are looking for is for their rights and their lives to be recognized.
GA: Andrea, thank you so much for this conversation.
AC: Thanks, Gustavo.
GA: And that’s it for this episode of THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times.
Shannon Lin was the jefa on this episode and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it.
Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Brousalian, David Toledo, Ashlea Brown and Angel Carreras. Our editorial assistants are Madalyn Amato and Carlos De Loera. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera and Shani Hilton. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen.
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I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back tomorrow with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.