Detainees Refute Northwest ICE’s Denials of Abuse

A report alleges inadequate medical care, lack of due process, and physical abuse at the Tacoma facility.

When immigration officials took Juan Carlos Martinez-Mendez to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, he was in bad shape. A year and a half prior, three guys had jumped out of the bushes at an Everett apartment complex and shot the El Salvador native in the head. He lost his right eye and an eyelid. His nose was destroyed. He'd had multiple surgeries by the time he arrived at the detention center in late 2005, but still had only completed "the first stage of his reconstruction," according to Richard Alan Hopper, his doctor at Harborview Medical Center. It took more than two years to get to stage two. Although Hopper and a lawyer from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) wrote numerous letters and e-mails on behalf of Martinez-Mendez, attesting to his need for, in Hopper's words, "urgent" medical care, Martinez-Mendez says he received only minimal care at the facility and was not allowed to undergo more extensive treatment elsewhere. "It was very difficult for me to get noticed—to be taken seriously," says Martinez-Mendez, who was released from detention in January 2007 after receiving notice that he qualifies for a "U-visa" given to victims of violent crimes. That visa allows him to stay in the U.S., though by his own account he entered the country illegally with his mother and three siblings when he was 14. He came to the attention of immigration officials while jailed for 30 days on charges of cocaine possession and DUI. Martinez-Mendez spoke to the Weekly in the wake of a report on conditions at the detention center released last month by the Seattle University School of Law and the immigrant rights group OneAmerica (formerly Hate Free Zone). The report, based on interviews with 41 detainees over a period of eight months in 2007 and 2008, alleges various "human rights violations" at the facility, including inadequate medical care, lack of due process, and physical abuse. The report also references work by the NWIRP, which identified nine detainees at the facility, from July 2006 until early 2008, who turned out to be U.S. citizens. Because detainees have no right to a court-appointed attorney, and federal statistics show that most detainees are not in fact represented, it is difficult once detained to prove that you don't belong there, according to NWIRP executive director Jorge Barón. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson Lorie Dankers immediately called the report a "work of fiction" and noted that it cited only anonymous sources. But Martinez-Mendez, whose case was not included in the report, gives voice to some of its complaints. So does Rennison Castillo, who was held for seven months at the facility despite telling immigration officials that he was a naturalized U.S. citizen who had served seven years in the Army—a claim that was disbelieved but turned out to be true. Dankers says that the 1,000-bed detention center maintains a complement of 19 doctors, nurses, and mental-health professionals on site. Every morning at 6 a.m. when lights go on, there is a "sick call," she says. Detainees are then able to request a visit with medical staff. "They could see someone every day if they'd like," she says. The detention center also has contracts with outside doctors in the Tacoma and Seattle area who will see detainees as needed, according to Dankers. She says she cannot discuss the Martinez-Mendez case in detail for privacy reasons. She notes, though, that "for some special surgeries, [ICE] headquarters does need to approve those." For example, she says: "If someone wanted facial reconstruction, we would look at whether there were health reasons or cosmetic." Martinez-Mendez, his Harborview doctor, and even his doctor at the detention center repeatedly enumerated a number of health problems that needed attention. Most urgent were the recurring sinus infections he suffered due to his destroyed nose. Although some work had been done to rebuild it, Martinez-Mendez says, he hadn't yet received the tubes that would keep his nostrils open, causing mucus to accumulate and infect the area. In the south Everett apartment he shares with his mother, Martinez-Mendez, now 30, still bearing pronounced facial scars despite additional surgeries since his release, takes out a thick pile of notes written by medical staff during his stay at the detention center. On May 10, 2005, six months into his stay, his primary doctor at the facility, Dr. Philip Farabaugh, wrote that Martinez-Mendez "needs consultation to address surgical issues that were pending at time of arrest related to sinus problems...and reconstructive surgery to right eyelids to better support prosthetic eye (prosthetic eye will fall out of socket.)" Farabaugh noted that a previous request for such consultation had been denied, presumably by ICE headquarters. In November of that year, Farabaugh made a new request for consultation "to address sinus issues only," noting that Martinez-Mendez "has been treated for sinus infections with antibiotics 9 times in past 10 months and [is now] responding less readily." In June 2006, with no surgeries yet done, Harborview's Hopper wrote a letter indicating that the sinus infections were "potentially life-threatening if they become untreatable by frequent antibiotic administration." In an interview, Hopper explains that the face shares a vessel system with the brain, so that an infection in one could lead to an infection in the other, with possibly fatal results. Martinez-Mendez did see outside specialists during his stay, including Hopper at least once. And Dankers says a surgery was eventually scheduled for him. But his prolonged legal battle had by that time come to an end, and Martinez-Mendez was released with the promise of a U-visa. It also took a long time for immigration authorities to figure out the case of Rennison Castillo, who'd had a history of run-ins with the law, mostly related to domestic-violence charges. In November 2005, he finished an eight-month jail term for violating a protection order and burglary (the latter charge because he knocked down the door of his ex-girlfriend's apartment). But the Belize native nonetheless was a U.S. citizen, as documented by a copy of his October 1998 naturalization certificate, which his lawyers at the NWIRP eventually obtained. He did not have one at his disposal in 2005, however, and had never sought a passport. So when immigration officers came to question him as he was leaving the Pierce County Jail, as part of their regular check on incarcerated foreign nationals, he was unable to offer any proof beyond his word, spoken in the flawless American accent that he had acquired by living in the U.S. since he was 5. "They basically didn't believe anything I was saying," says Castillo, a 30-year-old now working as a driver and processor for a Tacoma tent and awning company. They took him to the detention center, where he stayed seven months. "I'm naturalized here in the Seattle INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] building, Your Honor, while I was in the service," Castillo told Immigration Judge Kenneth Josephson during a December 2005 hearing, according to a transcript. "You can't just expect me to believe you," Josephson replied. In a follow-up hearing a month later, Josephson took greater note of Castillo's claim to have been in the military. The judge referred to the Department of Homeland Security's attorney, Thomas Malloy. "Well, Mr. Malloy is a full colonel in the Army Reserve," Josephson said. "Mr. Malloy, maybe you have questions for Mr. Castillo on this?" Malloy asked him for his discharge papers, which Castillo said were in the trunk of his car, and therefore inaccessible while in detention. Upon further questioning, Castillo said that he held the rank of an "E-4 specialist," had been stationed at Fort Lewis, and had also spent some time at a base in Korea. He added that he attended his naturalization ceremony in uniform. "Even if you served in the Army, that doesn't make you a citizen by itself," Josephson responded. That's true, but the Army requires recruits, if not citizens, to be green-card holders, except for nationals of a few locales not including Belize, according to regulations provided by Douglas Smith of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command. Regardless, without documentation, Josephson said he had no choice but to deport Castillo. Immigration officials should be able to determine whether a foreign national is a citizen or legal resident by checking a federal database that registers such information. Josephson repeatedly asked Malloy whether the database had turned up any verification of Castillo's claims. Malloy said it did not. But there had been a filing screw-up that resulted in two "alien" numbers for Castillo, according to legal papers, and Malloy was checking under the wrong number. In April 2006, Castillo received Army documentation of his service which referred to the second alien number (similar to a Social Security number for immigrants). Still, he was not released until June, after the Board of Immigration Appeals remanded the case back to the immigration judge, who reversed the deportation order. "ICE never knowingly detains a U.S. citizen," says Dankers. But apparently, as Castillo's case shows, ICE makes mistakes. Jorge Barón claims that since the Seattle University/One America report was written early this year, his organization has discovered five additional cases of individuals who spent time at the detention center before it was found they were citizens.

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