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Medical needs of immigrants in custody are neglected

A special series by the Reporting on Health Collaborative

About This Series

Many immigrants feel isolated in America – suffering that can turn toxic over time.

Six news outlets joined together as the Center for Health Journalism Collaborative to highlight the interplay between immigration status and health. The USC Annenberg project involves Mundo Hispánico (Atlanta), New America Media (California and New York), Radio Bilingüe (Fresno and Washington), WESA Pittsburgh, Univision Los Angeles and Univision Arizona.

Medical needs of immigrants in custody are neglected

February 03, 2014
11:00pm

Juana Lopez squeezed her son’s hands and caressed his forehead.

“I’m here, mi’jo,” she said. “Your mom’s here. React. Try your best.”

That was the first time Lopez had seen her son in more than three months. That day, with her son unconscious and breathing with an artificial respirator inserted in him, was also the last day she saw Fernando alive.

Fernando Dominguez Valdivia, a 58-year-old Montebello resident, died March 4, 2012, eight days after his mother visited him at Victor Valley Community Hospital. He had developed bronchopneumonia during the 100 days that he was under the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“It was negligence. It was lack of medical attention,” Lopez said. “If that happened to my son, it’s going to continue to happen to everybody that ends up there, that they don’t give them the treatment they should.”

The U.S. Office of Detention Oversight found that Dominguez Valdivia’s could have been prevented and that the center did not comply with the detention guidelines set by ICE.

Although Dominguez Valdivia’s death is the only one that has occurred in Adelanto, there have been more than 130 other deaths since 2003 in the 250 detention centers for immigrants in the country.

“It’s not that they are not competent, but that there aren’t enough medical resources,” said Carmen Iguina, a lawyer with ACLU of Southern California. “And many times the decisions are taken based on saving money and not the medical need.”

More than 400,000 people pass through the national network of detention centers every year. According to laws and regulations, they should receive human treatment with appropriate medical attention, but are detainees really getting an adequate care?

A Univison 34 team that is part of the Reporting on Health Collaborative investigated what goes on behind bars at these detention centers for immigrants in the U.S. and found some concerning trends.

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Thirty years ago, Fresno County was obligated to provide care to everyone who needed it, regardless of their immigration status. Now a judge has determined that the county no longer has to offer them medical services.

While children show different responses to early trauma, depending on factors such as their age, coping mechanisms, and family support, experts say that research shows that witnessing a parent's arrest or deportation leads to a complex series of problems.

Exhausted from the burden of her age and diabetes, Juana now pays more attention to the news. She recently learned of a California proposal to offer health insurance to people who are undocumented.

A Mexican-American woman decided to convert her house into a health insurance registration center. She invited her family and neighbors, most of them uninsured. Could this be a model strategy to sign up more Latinos?

All California counties have to offer a minimum of free or very low-cost health services to uninsured, low-income residents who do not qualify for subsidized health insurance and cannot pay for private insurance. But one county is trying to change this.

The consequences of separating parents from children can include causing or exacerbating mental health problems such as depressive or anxiety disorders.

In 2014, fellows Alonso Yáñez and Annabelle Sedano collaborated on a project highlighting shortcomings in detention facilities for undocumented immigrants operated by for-profit companies. As Obama reconsiders outsourcing detention centers, this project offers early warnings of problems to come.

Fatal errors and lack of adequate medical care in immigration detention centers bring suffering to detainees and their families.

As many as 1 in 4 of those detained have chronic medical conditions. Medical neglect can lead to deteriorated health and, in Fernando Dominguez Valdivia's case, death.

A Mexican father is released from detention thanks to a psychological evaluation used as evidence in court.

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