Do detained illegal immigrants deserve medical treatment?

Jeffrey Scott Shapiro Investigative Journalist
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Two months ago I had the rare opportunity to help try a civil rights case in U.S. District Court against the federal government for denying proper medical care to a detained immigrant who was waiting to be deported from Southern California to Mexico.

After a five-day trial in Los Angeles, we won a verdict of $250,000 against the United States government for neglecting to treat a wound that became infected and almost led to an amputation.

During the trial, I was horrified to learn how much power government doctors working in correctional facilities have over the lives of human beings, and what little regard detained immigrants are given because they are not considered a priority in the correctional system.

Although “illegal presence” in America is not listed in the U.S. criminal code and typically only carries a civil penalty (See 8 U.S.C. Section 1325 (b)), detained immigrants arguably receive worse treatment within the correctional system than rapists and murderers.

That’s because until recently medical treatment for immigrants detained by ICE was not based on actual medical needs, but rather on whether detainees’ injuries would adversely affect the government’s ability to deport them.

Imagine that for a moment — a policy that completely disregards the Hippocratic Oath and instead bases medical treatment on whether or not we can deport a person back to their homeland.

There’s nothing American about that.

After all, there are standards of common decency that should be applied to all people no matter who they are, even if they are not legal citizens or residents. By neglecting those standards, we disregard human dignity.

Also, because they’re detained, prisoners don’t have the freedom to get medical treatment on their own. To deny necessary medical treatment to a prisoner is to deny him or her due process and is cruel and unusual punishment, if not torture.

The ACLU has challenged some of these policies and filed cases on behalf of several detained immigrants.

This particular case was tried by a friend of mine named Conal Doyle, an award-winning trial lawyer based in Los Angeles who is highly regarded in the legal community as a civil rights champion.

Doyle had spent about five years working on this case. His client was a Mexican immigrant named Martin Hernandez-Banderas who cut his ankle while he was detained at the San Diego Correctional Facility in Southern California. That cut quickly turned into a painful gangrenous infection, and after four weeks of neglect from government doctors Banderas was told they were probably going to have to amputate his foot.

The Banderas case was a companion case to an earlier case, which Doyle argued before the U.S. Supreme Court for an immigrant named Francisco Castaneda. Castaneda died after a team of government doctors neglected to treat a lesion that turned out to be cancerous, and Doyle ultimately won a $2 million verdict for the victim’s family.

The pain both Banderas and Castaneda experienced was torturous. Both men were imprisoned, awaiting deportation, and powerless to get medical help on their own.

There is no question that millions of people across the world want to immigrate to America, and in the interest of fairness, everyone should have to go through the system properly and wait their turn. However, just because someone is detained for illegal presence does not mean it is justified to issue that person a veiled death sentence by denying him or her proper medical care.

All human beings deserve proper medical care when they are suffering. To deny human beings treatment, regardless of whether they are legal citizens, violates not only the most fundamental medical ethics, but also the creed of compassion and honor upon which America was built.

Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is a former Washington, D.C., prosecutor now practicing law and investigative journalism.