Content warning for serophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, torture, murder
“I couldn’t bear the pain anymore
That I feel in my heart
I couldn’t complain anymore
That people didn’t love me for who I am”
– Victoria Arellano
Victoria Arellano moved to the United States of America from Mexico to live with her mother, Olga, in California when she was seven years old. From a young age, she knew she was transgender, drawing herself in pictures as a crying woman, and writing poetry about her identity. She would put on makeup before going to school, and sneak out of her window to avoid fighting with her disapproving mother.
As she grew up, Victoria struggled with addiction but was able to seek treatment at a center specializing in the care of queer individuals. After being released, she began to repair her relationship with her mother, who was coming to terms with her daughter’s identity. She also got a job where her positive attitude earned her high praise and made a point to volunteer regularly. The trajectory of her life was abruptly halted in 2007 at the age of twenty-three when she was arrested for driving under the influence.
Sentenced to forty-five days in jail, Victoria served her sentence in a men’s facility. She was then sent to an ICE detention center because of her undocumented status.
The United States of America is known globally for its human rights abuses in regards to incarcerated individuals, and ICE facilities are under even less scrutiny. Human Rights Watch describes the maintenance of ICE facilities saying:
“ICE health care standards, particularly those addressing HIV/AIDS, fall below correctional health care standards established by nationally recognized experts and fail to comply with international recommendations for the treatment of prisoners with HIV/AIDS. Because even these lower standards have not been codified as federal regulations they are non-binding and unenforceable, leaving detainees with limited legal recourse if the standards are violated. Moreover, ICE carves out exceptions for many provisions of the standards, stating that for the hundreds of local jail facilities contracting individually with ICE to house detainees, these provisions are only "guidelines."
Like many other detainees, Victoria had been diagnosed with AIDS, and like many, she had been taking medication to deal with the illness. The medication was effective enough that, upon learning a fellow inmate shared her diagnosis, she comforted her saying that it was possible to live a normal healthy life. Because of their decision not to track their detainees with HIV/AIDS, it can be hard to tell exactly how the majority are treated in ICE facilities. What can be said is that they often refuse detainees access to medication, including women like Victoria.
As ICE had no policy regarding the respect of transgender identities, Victoria was sent to a men’s facility instead of the women’s. Though the conditions of the facility were dismal, with overcrowding to the point of putting almost one hundred detainees in a living space made for forty, Victoria was relatively optimistic, even annoyingly so according to some reports.
Dancing and joking constantly, she was a bright presence in the facility. She was known to sing all day, and among her favourites were Celine Dion, Gloria Trevi, Mariah Carey, and Selena. Nigerian refugee Eugene Peba had arrived in the facility nine months before Victoria, and though only twenty years old had been appointed the representative of the facility Victoria was in. On one occasion he approached Victoria about her constant singing, and they came to a compromise, Victoria agreeing to only sing in the dining area when people were sleeping.
She was also fluent in English, and with that skill she assisted other detainees, helping them understand the legal documents related to their cases, as the majority of them were forced to do much of their own research and casework.
When Olga would send Victoria money she would share with the other detainees, and though not everyone in the facility respected her gender, most grew fond of the woman. In particular, Walter Ayala, a refugee from El Salvador who witnessed the murder of his transgender friend and was forced to flee when he was thirteen, became a close friend to Victoria.
The two shared a deep love of music and would sing and walk together when they were let out in the yard. Often going to the dining area and pretending to be at a coffee shop, talking together for as long as they could. Together they made plans for when they got out, deciding to record a disc together, Walter going so far as to write a song for Victoria to sing:
“They control my glance
They control my smile
They control my every step
They control me night and day
Don’t control me anymore
Don’t control me.”
Victoria was also allowed to maintain contact with her mother, who upon finding out that Victoria was not given her life-saving medication offered to bring them to her, but was not allowed to.
As time passed and her medication was withheld, her health worsened. Experiencing regular pain, she filled out a slip to request medical attention, a request that was ignored outside of one short visit from a nurse.
She was eventually called to the medical facility to be told that the lab results taken upon her entrance into the facility had shown her condition was worsening. The medical reports recorded that she cried, and was sent back to her bunk without medication. AIDS experts agree that the medication could have still saved her life at that point.
Slowly, as her health continued to suffer because of this neglect, it became impossible for her to maintain her previous energetic pace. Many days she would stay in bed as long as possible and stopped eating entirely.
In their time in the yard, she no longer took walks, instead finding a quiet spot to lay down until they could go back inside.
By the time she was given some form of medication, she was so sick that she almost always threw it back up.
Her fellow detainees tried to help her as much as possible, with Walter feeding her pieces of apple with her pills in an attempt to keep them down. Edward Bush, a Romanian detainee who had been of the number to find Victoria’s constant singing annoying, smuggled oranges to her from the kitchen, recalling the situation said:
“God tell us to love everybody, Walter just peel it and give it to her. In less than two minutes, she throw up.”
Fellow detainees wet their towels to place them on her forehead, and one even gave her his blanket when she got chills at night.
People throughout the facility began sending requests to get her medical help. Elias Madrigal, who slept in a neighbouring bunk recalled the situation saying that all the people in the building participated in some way or another. Whenever the nurse would come, she would look at Victoria and tell her to drink water and take Tylenol.
At one point Victoria threw up blood, and after calling for help other detainees tried to clean it up. When the nurse arrived she said that she didn’t see any blood and left.
While Victoria had kept her mother ignorant of the situation, and the two women focused on telling each other how much they meant to each other when they talked, a friend of Victoria’s finally let Olga into the truth of the circumstances, telling her to get some sort of outside help.
Olga contacted multiple advocacy groups; all denied her.
At this point, Victoria was no longer able to walk and instead of letting her stay in bed the ICE guards forced her out into the yard in a wheelchair.
Horrified by her treatment, her fellow detainees had a meeting, knowing that this could not go on. While many advocated for some sort of protest, Peba insisted that they go through the “right channels” and contact the guards.
The guard he had talked to told him that the infirmary instructed them to give her more water, and when Peba protested this the guard agreed but refused to do anything. Though Peba tried one more time to calm the other detainees, saying he would try to contact a supervisor, the group had seen enough.
On July 12, all of the men in the facility went to the sleeping area where Victoria slept. A guard came to check-in, refusing to even touch Victoria, instead using his boot to move her head and say “Hey you, what’s wrong with you?”
Infuriated by the degrading treatment the group closed the supervisor in the room, chanting: “ICE, ICE, ICE!”
When a nurse arrived, it was the same one who had previously seen Victoria, asking to see the blood, and upon seeing Victoria, she scoffed and said there was nothing they could do for her. She again told them to try Tylenol and water.
The group blocked the door and began chanting again, this time yelling: “HOSPITAL, HOSPITAL, HOSPITAL!”
When the guards were eventually forced to take Victoria away, they brought her to the processing center and insulted and humiliated her. When she returned hours later Victoria claimed that they didn’t even bring her to the hospital saying:
“It was horrible, they just mocked me and made fun of me and laughed at me.”
She then begged them not to strike again out of fear that the results would be the same.
The next morning she was finally brought to the hospital, where they briefly attempted to treat her before sending her back to the facility. Without access to proper medication, she returned to her previous state.
She was in so much pain she writhed in her wheelchair and begged not to be forced outside. Her pleas were ignored. Eventually, they were forced to take her to the hospital once again. Olga was called and found her daughter chained to a gurney, unable to even turn over and lay on her side.
On July 20, 2007, Victoria died an entirely preventable death in the hospital.
Many of the advocacy groups that had previously refused help to Olga protested her death, including a candlelight vigil.
ICE refused to comment on Victoria’s death outside of spokesperson Virginia Kice, who demanded:
“The public must realize that when individuals come into ICE custody with severe health problems or terminal illnesses, regardless of the treatment they receive, there is the potential they will succumb to their condition.”
Sixty-one of the detainees in her facility signed a statement regarding the situation. The detainees who had signed the statement were refused access to phones for the next week, and many were transferred out, and it became hard for anyone in the press to get in contact with any of them. More importantly, many of them lost contact with their attorneys.
Human Rights Watch wrote of the situation saying:
“The United States is a party to the Convention Against Torture (CAT), which requires that detainees must not be subjected to any form of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment while in detention. If true, the neglect of Victoria's suffering, the failure to provide medical care and her subjection to taunting, harassment, and insults may constitute violations of the Torture Convention.”
Since ICE was founded in 2001 the United States of America has given the organization free reign over the treatment of undocumented people and those assumed to be. With little to no regulation, the organization has participated in regular human rights abuses since its inception. While some among the citizens in America protest the treatment, many lawmakers not only support ICE but refuse to admit any wrongdoing is being committed.
In reaction to ICE’s facilities, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has said:
“States do have the sovereign prerogative to decide on the conditions of entry and stay of foreign nationals, but clearly, border management measures must comply with the State’s human rights obligations and should not be based on narrow policies aimed only at detecting, detaining and expeditiously deporting irregular migrants”.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
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