Death of HIV+ Trans Woman in Immigration Custody Sparks Protests
The issue of immigration reform is not going to away anytime soon. The fact that there are up to 20 million illegal immigrants within our borders has become one of the touchstones of 2007, and will continue to haunt both parties going into the 2008 presidentail contest.
Amid the backdrop of partisan acrimony, an HIV-positive Mexican transgender woman died in federal custody last month under circumstances that have sparked outrage among LGBT and immigrant activists.
What is not in dispute is that Victoria Arellano, 23, died on July 20 in the intensive care unit of a San Pedro, Calif., hospital. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained the undocumented immigrant in May after she entered the country for the second time. Arellano apparently first came to the United States as a child. She worked at a West Hollywood supermarket and had volunteered at a Hollywood drug and alcohol abuse treatment facility.
According to published reports, ICE officials routinely denied Arellano the antibiotic dapasone and other necessary medications to treat HIV-related side effects. Her mother Olga and her fellow detainees at the San Pedro detention facility have confirmed these accounts in interviews with the Los Angeles Daily Journal earlier this month.
ICE spokesperson Lori Haley did not respond to a request by EDGE to answer to these specific allegations. She said in a statement that her agency provides adequate health care to those held within its detention centers.
"All facilities used by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain aliens must comply with rigorous standards that exceed those imposed by the federal Bureau of Prisons," Haley said. "These requirements reflect the agency’s commitment to maintain safe, secure and humane conditions for aliens in ICE custody."
Haley added ICE spends more than $98 million each year on detainee health care. The Washington Post reported earlier this month that Arellano’s death is the first of three to have taken place at ICE detention facilities across the country in recent weeks. Haley further confirmed 62 detainees, including two others held in San Pedro, died in ICE custody between 2004 and June 26 of this year.
She again defended her agency’s policies. "ICE’s foremost priority is ensuring the safety and security of all those in its custody," she said.
The Southern California-based organization Bienestar, the Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund, Equality California, the American Civil Liberties Union and LGBT and immigrants rights organizations across the country, however, are expressing outrage over Arellano’s death.
Bienestar Communications Manager Coral Lopez added she feels this case only confirms her belief that LGBT immigrants continue to suffer discrimination and other mistreatment while in ICE custody. "This case exemplifies what we’ve been saying for all these years - immigration is in fact an LGBT issues," she said. "Victoria’s unfortunate death demonstrates why we need to be working in coalition on these issues."
Immigration Equality Legal Director Victoria Neilson agreed. Her organization remains at the forefront of the national movement for LGBT rights’ efforts to advocate on behalf of LGBT immigrants and bi-national couples. Neilson further speculated that Arellano suffered further discrimination because of her gender identity.
"Unfortunately it’s not an isolated incident," she said during an interview from her Lower Manhattan office. "It just shows while people are in immigration detention, people are just warehoused and not cared for."
Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund Executive Director Michael Silverman questioned other aspects of Arellano’s detention. He described ICE’s decision to house her in a male facility in its San Pedro facility as particularly problematic.
"Clearly she was someone who was openly transgender and presented herself as a female," Silverman said. "There are a whole host of reasons to suggest abuse and outright refusal to provide care at play."
Gay Men’s Health Crisis Assistant Director of Research and Federal Affairs Nancy Ordover agreed. She added in an interview with EDGE that she believes ICE needs to be held to account for Arellano’s death and the overall treatment of others held within its detention facilities.
"The thing with ICE that’s so difficult is that they act as if they are not accountable," Ordover said. "Even by their own guidelines... they failed Victoria Arellano. This is a woman who did not have to die."
National Gay & Lesbian Task Force Executive Director Matt Foreman was much more blunt. "It’s pretty obvious what led to this: fear and loathing of a person who was HIV positive, transgender and an immigrant," he said. "We should be ashamed of our government and the violence it inflicts with our tax dollars."
Arellano’s family and Bienestar plan to hold a vigil in Los Angeles on Monday. Her death and the movement’s overall response to it reflect the impact the broader immigration debate continues to have among LGBT activists and organizations at the local, state and national level.
The Human Rights Campaign, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and Lambda Legal are among the groups that have used their resources and even staff to highlight this issue among their various constituencies. Some within the movement, however, have questioned this strategy.
Blogger Jasmyne Cannick sparked widespread outrage in April 2006 after she argued LGBT people should receive equality before immigrants. More than 50 activists from across the country condemned Cannick’s comments in an open letter which the Advocate published a week after it ran her column.
"We reject any attempts to pit the struggle of multiple communities against each other," the statement read. "This strategy has always been used to divide oppressed groups from coming together to work in coalition."
Neilson added she feels Arellano’s death provides the movement with yet another opportunity to raise awareness of the plight of many LGBT and HIV-positive immigrants who remain in federal custody.
" These folks are often just in the shadows," she said. "A lot of our own are caught up in the net and subject to particular vulnerabilities."
Silverman agreed. "This particular case points to policy changes that are needed," he said. "The movement and various organizations in the movement need to put pressure on the government and ICE to come clean about what happened here."