In his early career, Bob Dylan used to write songs about people like Victoria Arellano. Although as I think about it, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll* seems to chronicle a far less heinous injustice in comparison, heinous as it was.
In May 2007, Victoria Arellano, a 23-year-old transgender immigrant from Mexico, was sent to a detention center in San Pedro after being arrested on a traffic charge.
Arellano, who was born a male and had come to the United States illegally as a child, had AIDS at the time of her arrest but exhibited no symptoms of the disease because of the medication she took daily. But once detained, her health began to deteriorate.She lost weight and became sick. She repeatedly pleaded with staff members at the detention center to see a doctor to get the antibiotics she needed to stay alive, according to immigrant detainees with whom Arellano shared a dormitory-style cell. But her requests were routinely ignored.
The task of caring for Arellano fell to her fellow detainees. They dampened their own towels and used them to cool her fever; they turned cardboard boxes into makeshift trash cans to collect her vomit. As her condition worsened, the detainees, outraged that Arellano was not being treated, staged a strike: They refused to get in line for the nightly head count until she was taken to the detention center’s infirmary.
Officials relented, and Arellano was sent to the infirmary, then to a hospital nearby. But after two days there — and after having spent two months at the federally operated facility — she died of an AIDS-related infection. Her family has taken steps to file a wrongful-death claim against the federal government.
The next time some Tancredophile flaps on about how those illegals don’t deserve our precious health care, what can I say? I admit I’m conflicted. Blast ’em or bless ’em? I go both ways. In terms of another dialog from back in the day, a bit of West Side Story plays in my head, with Action and Arab on one shoulder and Ice on the other:
ICE: You wanna live in this lousy world? You play it cool.
ACTION: I wanna get even!
ICE: Get cool!
A-RAB: I wanna bust!
ICE: Bust cool!
ACTION: I wanna go!
ICE: Go cool.
Ice comes out ahead, at least in my mind. Except I’d opt for the Gandhi option (Ice was about defending himself), try a little satyagraha. Lord knows we need it. Was I not ignorant once? And have I not been graced with time to grow out of some of my ignorance? So it is.
The facts are a grace. I’d share this:
…Unlike federal and state prisons, immigrant detention centers, many of which are run by private contractors, are not legally mandated to abide by any healthcare standards when it comes to treating sick immigrants. Civil and immigrant rights groups have filed suit in New York to force federal officials to issue such rules, but the Department of Homeland Security, which has jurisdiction in the matter, has yet to produce them. In the absence of legally binding standards, detained immigrants, such as Arellano, have no legal way to complain about the lax healthcare they receive at the facilities where they are held. They cannot appeal the denial of care or sue in federal court to obtain it.
What medical care is available is often delayed, or denied, while doctors and nurses at the facilities await approval from officials in Washington, who can deny crucial care without explanation.
And then I might politely offer a pop quiz:
Is the “illegal” behavior in being an “illegal immigrant”
a. a felony
b. a misdemeanor
c. a civil violation?
The answer, of course, is c. It’s no more a crime to be an “illegal immigrant” than to be “illegally” parked by an expired parking meter. I might then further inform my Tancredophile:
Because they face civil charges, most of the immigrant detainees are not entitled to a public defender. As a result, they must wage their civil rights battles, including the fight to obtain healthcare, from facilities that are often in remote rural areas where there are few pro bono groups or pro-immigrant advocates.
Then I’d offer a conversation on what is humanity and what is inhumanity.
*Oh, and here’s the song. That’s one of the many things I loved about Steve Allen. If the song took six minutes, he gave the singer six minutes — in 1964!