ICE Under Fire

Advocates Demand Justice for Victoria Arellano, Transgender HIV-Positive Immigrant Killed by Denial of HIV Care While in Detention

The tragic death of an HIV-positive transgender Mexican immigrant has led an angry activist movement to hold the Department of Homeland Security accountable for the inhumane conditions and deficient medical care at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, where at least 65 deaths have occurred since 2004 and complaints about lack of medical treatment are frequent.

Victoria Arellano died in a San Pedro, California detention center in August after ICE officials denied her repeated requests for AIDS medications.

Testimony from other detainees makes it clear that when Arellano entered the facility she was on HIV medication but asymptomatic and visibly healthy. Although Arellano identified and lived as a woman, ICE placed her in a male unit. Six weeks later she was dead. Not only is Arellano's death suspect, but testimonies and media accounts state she was subjected to cruel and degrading treatment by the prison guards while she was dying, including being shackled to her bed.

"This was a case of ICE basically watching someone deteriorate and die in front of their eyes," said Megan McLemore, a researcher at the Human Rights Watch who visited the San Pedro facility after Arellano's death and is compiling a report on treatment of people with HIV/AIDS within ICE facilities.

Arellano's fellow detainees complained that she was ill, demonstrated and chanted to get her treatment, and organized a seventy-person petition that to demand that she be brought to a hospital. Many of the detainees who supported Arellano have now been transferred to other detention centers.

Though prison authorities disregarded the petition from Arellano's fellow detainees, a coalition of more than 70 organizations, ranging from Immigration Equality to the Unitarian Universalist Church to AIDS groups like Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) and Housing Works Tuesday sent demands to the Department of Homeland Security echoing an earlier letter by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights' Watch calling for an investigation surrounding the circumstances of Arellano's death.

Nancy Ordover, Assistant Director for Research and Federal Affairs at GMHC, who helped draft the letter, said those who can have a duty to make sure this situation is remedied and that ICE conditions improve. "Victoria's fellow detainees -- people with everything to lose -- really stood up to be counted. If we don't do the same from our position of relative safety and comfort, then we have not done our job."

Complaints from people in detention centers about inadequate access to medication is sadly common, said Tom Jawitz, an immigration detention attorney at ACLU National Prison Project. "It's not just San Pedro," said Tom Jawitz, an immigration detention attorney at ACLU National Prison Project. "We've received similar complaints about detainees around the country." In some cases the poor treatment is deliberate -- as appears to be the case with Arellano. But other times it is the result of mismanagement in a prison system that has increased the number of detainees by more than three-fold since 1996 when legislation changes led to mandatory detention for certain crimes. On any given day, there are now 29,000 people held in detention centers, a number that is growing.

"You're going to see more of these medical problems as the use of detention expands," Jawitz said. "The number of people strains resources, and design and conception of ICE facilities are based on only detaining a few people."

In addition to calling for an investigation of the circumstances surrounding Arellano's death, the organizational sign-on letter also calls for systematic changes in the treatment of LBGT detainees and a cut in the length of their detention. The letter calls on the Department of Homeland Security to:

  • Implement revised standards that are enforceable and legally binding in all ICE/DHS detention facilities, regardless of whether said facilities are operated by the federal government, private companies, or state/county/local agencies. Detainees, their families, and their representatives must have legal recourse when these standards are violated.

  • Provide effective internal and external oversight of detention conditions and treatment of detainees. This would include the establishment of an ombudsman, ongoing monitoring and frequent inspections with subsequent reports released to Congress and made available to the public.

  • Immediately rectify any and all breaches of detention standards, including denial of medical care.

  • Increase the availability of medical personnel to see detained individuals who are in need of care, regardless of whether or not a detainee has made a formal request for care. Currently, facilities with over 200 detainees are only required to schedule "sick calls" five days a week, while facilities with fewer than 50 detainees need only provide access to medical personnel one day a week. This is grossly insufficient.

  • Commission an investigation into the death of Victoria Arellano that is independent and transparent, so that the public may have confidence in the investigation's outcome.

  • Strengthen the DHS/ICE national detention standards to comply with human rights principles.

  • Ensure that treatment regimens, including medication for HIV/AIDS and related infections and hormone therapy for transgender detainees are not interrupted.

  • Adhere to international covenants and treaties mandating the humane treatment of all detainees, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

  • Pursue non-custodial alternatives (e.g., parole, supervised release to family members, regular reporting requirements, bond options) for immigration detainees, particularly for those individuals whose health or personal safety would be imperiled by detention.

  • End the practice of prolonged and indefinite detention, which is a violation of both international and U.S. law.

  • Publicly report all deaths that occur in ICE custody, refer them immediately to the Office of the Inspector General for investigation, and make the results of each inquiry available to the public as soon as it is complete.

  • End the practice of placing immigration detainees with the general inmate population.

  • Ensure that the safety of detainees, particularly transgender detainees is the paramount consideration when deciding whether to place an individual with the male or female population. Solitary confinement must not be considered a viable option.

  • Grant transgender detainees the right to choose to be housed in a facility that corresponds with their gender identity, regardless of which sex is listed on their legal documents and/or regardless of their birth-sex.

  • Revise the DOM to address the particular needs of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender men and women, including health and safety issues.

  • Train all staff in all facilities where ICE detainees are held to comply with these standards and safeguard the inherent dignity of all persons.

To join the effort, contact Nancy Ordover at GMHC by email at