Note: Human Rights Watch decided that it was appropriate, in this particular case, to refer to the deceased in the following letter to the Department of Homeland Security by her sex at birth and legal name -- rather than as she self-identified, which was as a woman named Victoria Arellano. Human Rights Watch respects and recognizes the self-identification and chosen names of transgender people and it is our practice, unless specific circumstances call for it, to identify people as they see themselves.
August 27, 2007
Department of Homeland Security
Washington, DC 20528
Attn: Office of Inspector General
We are writing on behalf of the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU-SC) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) regarding the recent death in DHS custody of Victor Arellano, A#779 91 267, in July 2007. We are writing to urge the Office of Inspector General (OIG) to undertake a prompt, independent, and comprehensive investigation into this death. Any efforts to create obstacles to an effective investigation, such as the transfer of witnesses with relevant information to remote locations where they may become unavailable, should be ceased immediately.
Mr. Arellano was detained in the custody of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the San Pedro Service Processing Center (SPSC) when he died in the hospital on July 20, 2007. According to information received by the ACLU-SC from SPSC detainees who witnessed the events leading up to his death, ICE did not respond in a timely manner to numerous and increasingly desperate requests for urgent medical attention made by Arellano and his fellow detainees as his condition deteriorated in the weeks prior to his death. Detainees have alleged that despite being aware that Arellano was a person with HIV who was in need of life-sustaining medication, SPSC medical care providers did not provide appropriate care, causing Arellano needless suffering and ultimately leading to his tragic and painful death. Detainees also have indicated that SPSC officials discriminated against Arellano because of his status as a transgender person.
If these allegations are true, they represent gross violations of ICE National Detention Standards, as well as the U.S. Constitution, federal law and international human rights standards. As such, this case falls fully within the mission of the DHS Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG), and we believe an immediate investigation by the DHS OIG is imperative. Such an investigation should result in a publicly available report with appropriate recommendations to ensure that deaths in ICE custody do not occur in the future.
We are also concerned that the detainees who assisted Mr. Arellano, who notified civil rights advocates and representatives of the news media about the case, or who were witnesses to the events leading up to Arellano’s death may have been subject to retaliation by SPSC officials. On August 22, 2007, a Human Rights Watch representative visited SPSC and discovered that more than twenty detainees who had witnessed the events leading up to Arellano’s death had been transferred out of the Los Angeles area less than 24 hours prior to Human Rights Watch’s visit. Among those transferred were three detainees quoted by name in the report published August 9, 2007 in the Los Angeles Daily Journal. These detainees had agreed to meet with Human Rights Watch and were expecting Human Rights Watch’s visit to the facility.
We have been informed that two detainee witnesses were transferred to an ICE contract facility in Karnes County, Texas, resulting in the disruption of relationships with family and legal counsel in the Los Angeles area. The whereabouts of the other detainee witnesses are unknown. The transfer of key witnesses not only compromises the ability of those detainees to defend their removal cases effectively but also impedes the progress of ongoing investigations into Mr. Arellano’s death. Given the proximity in time between Mr. Arellano’s death and the transfer of many key witnesses, we have serious questions about whether these transfers fit within any of the permitted causes for transfer under Paragraph III (B) of the applicable ICE Detention Standards (e.g. medical necessity, venue change, overcrowding, or security concerns). As the Inspector General’s office is undoubtedly aware, if ICE was motivated to transfer these detainees for retaliatory purposes or to evade examination of Mr. Arellano’s death, this action undermines the primary rationale for promulgation of the ICE Detention Standards, that of increased accountability for the agency’s detention operations.
In light of the above, we urge the Office of the Inspector General to conduct a prompt, thorough investigation into the following:
- The circumstances surrounding Mr. Arellano’s death, including the adequacy of the medical care provided by the SPSC to Victor Arellano, and the responses of SPSC officials to requests and complaints made by Mr. Arellano and his fellow detainees about his medical treatment; and
- The sudden transfer by SPSC of detainees in the same housing Pod as Mr. Arellano who had witnessed the events leading up to Mr. Arellano’s death, including whether such transfers were retaliatory or resulted in imposing obstacles to an effective investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr. Arellano’s death.
The investigation should be capable of identifying those responsible for any actions which contributed to Mr. Arellano’s death, and any retaliatory action that may have been taken.
Thank you for your consideration of this request. We look forward to a prompt written response.
ACLU of Southern California
1616 Beverly Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90026
Megan McLemore, Esq.
Human Rights Watch
350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor
New York, NY 10118