Commentary: More dignified treatment for detained immigrants

She spent days lying in the jail cell's cot "stiff as a corpse," with pain in her joints that demanded medical attention. The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis were unbearable, but the prison guards gave her no pity.

Several weeks passed at the Monroe County Jail and Lourdes wasn't given any of the nine medications she needs to treat her severe arthritis. Her jailers justified it by saying that they had to get permission from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As far as they were concerned, Lourdes was just another immigrant to be deported.

"I felt humiliated, trampled, because apart from not providing the treatment, the officials treat you with cruelty, inhumanely, and that affects you more than the pain," recalled the 49-year-old Hispanic woman, between sobs. Lourdes, who lives in Miami, asked that her real name not be used because her case is pending.

Her testimony is part of a report released Tuesday by the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center about the precarious – and often nonexistent – medical services provided to immigrants at federal detention centers, state prisons and county jails.

"ICE tolerates a culture of cruelty and indifference to human suffering," states the FIAC report. "Detainees routinely report being treated as criminals, being accused of faking illnesses and having painful symptoms ignored."

The United States stands up for human rights throughout the world. What if we started leading by example and treated detained immigrants with dignity? Right now, they are not even extended the same rights conferred to criminals in state and federal prisons.

Lourdes arrived over 20 years ago from Latin America and was given political asylum. A year later, she became a legal resident. She was followed by her husband and children. Her grandkids are U.S. citizens.

She worked tirelessly, cleaning hotel rooms and offices, leaving for work at 7 a.m. and returning at midnight, barely time to speak to her kids.

A few years ago, she was convicted of minor infractions that did not warrant jail time, her lawyers said without elaborating. But last year, while returning from a trip to her homeland, she was detained at Miami International Airport. She was given a summons to appear at the ICE office. That day, she was detained.

For three years, she had been taking nine medications for arthritis and could walk with only slight pain. Three months after her ICE detention, she was released in a wheelchair and had lost 60 pounds.

Today, she still relies on a walker. She is swollen and her feet are atrophied. Her rheumatologist at Jackson Memorial Hospital says her current condition is "potentially irreversible."

Lourdes says it wasn't until she was unable to walk or bathe that her jailers provided her with a wheelchair. Only then was she given "medicine:" folic acid and iron. "I felt that I would die, because they didn't pay me any attention. I had to swallow my pain."

Lourdes isn't a terrorist, but this wife, mother and grandmother was mistreated as if she deserved death.

Newly appointed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, whose agency oversees ICE, should read the findings of this latest report and insist on humanitarian treatment for people waiting for their cases to be resolved. Otherwise, we mock the human rights that we demand the rest of the world to uphold.


Daniel Shoer Roth is a columnist at El Nuevo Herald, where he has worked since 1999. He writes about issues that affect South Floridians but do not get enough public attention.

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