(Page 3 of 3)
“He was the victim of a crime committed by two police officers, and he is therefore potentially eligible for a U visa,” Simpson argued in a motion to set Gomez free on bond. “In order to pursue his complaint effectively…Francisco needs to be in Raleigh, North Carolina—rather than detained in Georgia.” Pleading for a bond in a written statement to Cassidy, Santiago said she and Simpson were struggling to fight for Gomez from North Carolina while he’s incarcerated in Georgia. “If he’s detained in Georgia, he won’t be able to fight his case,” she wrote. “He won’t get a chance to prove what really happened.”
‘They Don’t Want to Do Anything’
In the meantime, Gomez is asking for medical treatment for his injuries. When the officers arrested him, he was already nursing a spinal fracture from being hit by a car a few weeks earlier. He says one officer crushed his ribs and the other punched him in the back half a dozen times. He says his first lawyer had to pressure the jail in Raleigh to get the wound on his arm treated.
“It’s been nine months now, and I still have a mark on my hand they gave me,” Gomez wrote in a March statement to the Justice Department. “They think that I am fine, and this is not true. The truth is that my back hurts since the day they hit me, and the ribs at times also hurt.…I am going to make a report in this detention where I am now already. I made one, but they did not give me more pills for the pain, and I told them that I want an X-ray of my back, and they don’t want to do anything for my case here in this jail where I am.”
As with legal representation, access to medical care is extremely limited for ICE detainees, especially in giant immigrant-only jails, where the ratio of medical staff to inmates is lower than in ordinary jails. In 2008 The Washington Post documented the spread of tuberculosis and chicken pox, as well as deaths due to untreated heart disease and cancer inside immigration jails. Last year ICE settled a lawsuit in which the American Civil Liberties Union accused the agency of falling below federal jail standards by failing to provide proper medical care at the San Diego Correctional Facility. ICE had denied detainees treatments it deemed “non-emergency,” including heart surgeries, cancer biopsies, and medication for chronic illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
During the first half of 2008, a quarter of medical personnel jobs in the immigrant detention system were vacant, according a U.S. Division of Immigrant Health Services report cited by The Washington Post. Studies by the ACLU and the Department of Homeland Security itself found the vacancies closer to 40 percent. A report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which earlier this year published a report critical of ICE detention practices, says facilities housing hundreds of detainees often have only one doctor working limited shifts. The Post reported that the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall had a backlog of 2,097 medical appointments in 2008. A December 2006 survey of three immigration detention centers by the Department of Homeland Security found that 41 percent of nonemergency medical requests were not being addressed promptly.
In 2008 representatives of the Georgia ACLU visited the Stewart Detention Center, where Gomez has been held. They met a man whose asthma had gone untreated for two months. He and others had infections and rashes they said they had contracted while in custody there. “This appears to undermine the [ICE] standard which states that ‘detainees diagnosed with a communicable disease shall be isolated,’ ” the ACLU reported. The ICE Detention Standards Compliance Unit found conditions at Stewart to be deficient in 2007 but said they improved to an “acceptable” level a year later.
From October 2003 to November 2010, 115 immigrants died in ICE custody from various causes, including heart disease, cancer, and suicide. Last year The New York Times told the stories of one immigrant who committed suicide after jailers withheld pain medication for a broken leg, and another man who suffered from untreated and eventually fatal head injuries while officials debated how to avoid paying for his care and whether to send him back to Africa.
Jailers’ treatment of immigrant detainees can go beyond neglect. Last August, Human Rights Watch reported on 15 female inmates who had been sexually assaulted or harassed by guards or ICE agents in eight different immigration detention facilities.
‘An Honest, Law-Abiding Young Man’
Edith Santiago, a single mother of five, wants her friend to get a fighting chance at freedom. The two met when Gomez was in his early 20s, and she soon adopted him into her home. He had been living with another friend, and Santiago says he is no longer in touch with his family in Mexico. She says Gomez helped her care for her children, her ailing mother, and her baby granddaughter, who has cancer. “He is like a son to me, and it was like seeing my own child get beaten for nothing,” Santiago wrote in her affidavit for Judge Cassidy. “I couldn’t sleep for about four days after seeing what happened because I kept seeing those officers beat on Francisco.”
Santiago’s pastor, the Rev. Michael Morris of Raleigh’s First Baptist Church, wrote to Judge Cassidy asking for a low bond to free Gomez while he makes his case to the Justice Department. “Francisco is a quiet person who always acts courteously,” the pastor said. “He deserves every consideration as an honest, law-abiding young man.”
But the way immigration laws are being enforced today doesn’t treat immigrants like law-abiding people locked in civil disputes with the federal government. It treats them like criminals, with all the hazards and indignities of life behind bars.
Jesse James DeConto writes from Durham, North Carolina. An award-winning newspaper reporter, most recently at the Raleigh News and Observer, his work appears regularly in The Christian Century and Prism.