Health & Family

HIV-infected detainees neglected?

Olga Arellano sobs as she recalls how her HIV-positive daughter spent two months succumbing to infections in a U.S. migrant detention center, complaining that she didn't see a doctor or get the right medicine.

Fellow inmates begged for help after Victoria Arellano started vomiting blood in their holding cell, where her lawyer said 105 detainees were crammed onto bunks and mattresses in a space designed for 40.

She died three days later, chained to a hospital bed. The death of the 23-year-old transgender Mexican immigrant is at the forefront of discussions at this week's international AIDS conference in Mexico City. Rights activists say it shows the failure of immigration officials to deal humanely with HIV-positive inmates among the 30,000 migrants held in detention centers across the United States.

New York-based Human Rights Watch says it found 14 cases in which HIV-infected immigrants were not given proper care while in custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

ICE officials deny this, but have declined to comment specifically on the cases since Arellano is suing the agency.

Activists say many HIV-infected migrants in U.S. detention centers are not given their medicine regularly, which is crucial to their survival. People with HIV can live otherwise healthy lives if they take a strict regimen of specific medications and closely monitor their blood cells to be sure their immune systems are working.

That's difficult for people being deported, particularly in overcrowded detention centers. When the regimen is interrupted, the virus rebounds and the immune system crashes.

The family's lawyer, Steven Archer, says Arellano never got proper medical attention after she was stopped for drunk driving and handed over to immigration officials in June 2007.

“They never gave her any of the proper medications for her AIDS diagnosis. They did give her a prescription for a urinary tract infection, but even then, they filled her prescription with the wrong strength, and they never diagnosed the meningitis, even though she had been complaining about headaches, sweats and generalized pain for weeks. That is what killed her in the end,” Archer said. “It was so advanced that it involved her brain, her liver, her lungs, her heart, and a couple of other organs. She died in terrible pain.”

ICE spends nearly $100 million annually on medical services for its detainees, including dental, chronic and mental health care. A June 11 report on deaths in ICE custody by the Homeland Security Department's internal watchdog found that ICE's overall standards have equaled those of other detention agencies.

Since ICE was formed in 2003, 71 people out of 1.5 million have died in the agency's custody. Officials note that such deaths declined to seven last year even as the detainee population swelled. But the watchdog report recommended that ICE do more to improve oversight and screening procedures and to fill clinical staff shortages at detention facilities.