My client’s heart, my heart.
About 2 months ago, working in a corporate immigration detention facility, I met a man in custody with a heart condition. He gave me permission to share his story but I am going to change his name anyway and call him Jaime. I am an immigration lawyer and I run a little grassroots legal service project called Santa Fe Dreamers Project. One of the things my colleagues and I do is go into the detention facility two days a week to orient inmates to their rights, give them advice about their cases, and advocate for them with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the corporation that runs the center, Core Civic. I was meeting with a client of mine late in the day and when we were done Jaime appeared. Jaime was a middle aged Guatemalan national and he had been living in Texas for many years. A letter from him that I have in his file says that his family was killed in Guatemala when he was 7 years old and that he has been in the US ever since. I don’t know all the details of his life in the US because we didn’t have time to do an intake. Jaime was being removed to Guatemala the next day and he had a deadly heart condition and he was scared for his life, scared that if he was removed he would not have access to the medicine and medical care to keep his heart pumping. This wasn’t speculation. Jaime had a mountain of medical records with him. He had already experienced one massive heart attack while in ICE custody. In September of 2016, his heart stopped in the recreation area of the prison and he was revived and transferred to a local hospital for emergency heart surgery. When I met him in April he had been begging for our government to pay attention to his condition in consideration of their decision to deport him and the clock had run out.
I paced the halls of the facility looking for an ICE officer and could not find anyone to help us. Someone told me all the ICE officers had gone home. I wasn’t sure what to do. At a previous meeting with ICE, I had been told that if I needed to communicate with someone at the facility I should send a fax. So I drove the 150 miles across two different interstates back to my office and sent a fax back to the facility that I had just left. The fax basically said “DO NOT REMOVE! This man has a heart condition and could die if removed. We need time to file an emergency stay of removal”. Applications for Stay of Removal had to be delivered by hand to the local ICE office 60 miles away during business hours and I was afraid by the time we made it to the office he would have been removed. My fax was not to suggest that ICE didn’t have the right to remove him, just a plea to slow the removal down to ensure his safety. I have no clue if anyone ever read that fax because Jaime was put on a plane the next morning.
People detained in immigration detention facilities often have medical problems. When you interview people about their treatment in custody they almost always mention that when they bring their health issues to ICE they are told to drink water. This is astonishing and sounds improbable but I have met people with epilepsy and stomach cancer who were told to drink water when complaining to ICE. Here is text from Jaime’s letter about his first heart attack:
I started having chest pain so I went to medical to let them know about my chest pain. The male nurse told me to drink a lot of water….. the next day my chest pain got worse and I went to sick call, like always but when I got the the infirmary the jailer receiving those sick calls told me to go back to my dorm because she was real busy and not to bother her. The next day I went back because my chest pain was getting worse. I was coming from breakfast and a nurse had to help me get to the infirmary because I had bad chest pain… a male nurse called me and asked me some questions. I explained everything to him and his answer was to drink a lot of water and I will get better pretty soon and he sent me back to my dorm
The letter describes going on to meet a doctor who told him to drink water and eat lettuce, being yelled at by nurses, and being prescribed medicine for stress. He then, of course, had a heart attack. And then spent another 7 months detained.
When we didn’t hear from Jaime after faxing ICE, we figured he was in Guatemala. Situations like this make me sad, of course. I always try my hardest with our cases so when terrible things happen I can console myself with the fact that we did the best we could, even in terribly limited situations like Jaime’s. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. It is a strategy to deal with pain. We move on. We find the next client and try our best to learn from our losses.
So it was surprising, a few weeks later when a colleague of mine encountered Jaime in the prison. According to Jaime, he had boarded the plane to Guatemala City the day after we met him and had another heart attack while still on the tarmac in the US. He told us that he flat-lined for twenty minutes and was revived and taken to the hospital. He told us that the government was waiting for him to stabilize a bit before attempting to remove him again. This was, of course, awful news, but it was also the break we needed to apply for a Stay of Removal. We rushed back to the city to file it by hand complete with medical records.
A Stay of Removal can be used when a person has a final order of removal from a judge and wants to postpone actually leaving. This can be allowed for “urgent humanitarian reasons”, “significant public health benefit”, or because the “immediate removal of the alien is not practicable or proper”. It doesn’t stop a removal but it slows it down and postpones it to a time when there is no urgent humanitarian emergency and the removal is practicable and proper. It seemed that Jaime’s case was the exact situation this tool contemplated. Yet since the Trump took office, asking ICE for any humanitarian relief has felt like talking to a wall or yelling into a giant, empty cave — pointless, silly, even. But we had to try everything we could so we paid the $155 and applied for the Stay and crossed our fingers. Jaime called collect from prison maybe 10 times asking if we had any news. Then, a few weeks ago, we received the letter. The Department of Homeland Security, in it’s unreviewable exercise of discretion, denied his request. It was the end of the line. Before he was removed, a colleague of mine from the ACLU interviewed him about his time in the ICE prison. He reported during those final weeks being denied medicine, even having a nurse take his heart medication away. Finally, last week Jaime was sent to Guatemala, a place he has not been for over thirty years and a country where he has no family or community ties, with no money and with a weeks worth of medicine in his hand. When we spoke last night he was staying at a shelter, a casa de migrantes, and having chest pains. Thankfully, one of my big-hearted, fast moving physician friends works in Guatemala and sent an assistant to find Jaime and see that he got the medical help he needed. I got this screenshot this morning:
It seems for the moment that Jaime is going to be OK. I doubt I will hear from him again, but if he is in trouble I hope that he reaches out. There are people who care everywhere when someone is in trouble: people like my doctor friend and his assistant; like my friend at the ACLU who took Jaime’s declaration; like the attorney who drove to the city to hand deliver his request for Stay of Removal with a personal check. I can imagine the unknown-to-me good people along the way who have tried to help Jaime. I am sure there were many and will be many more. So when it come to my heart, why is it so heavy? Why did I cry and cry the other night thinking about Jaime?
I know it wasn’t our government who put a bad heart in Jaime’s body. But it was our government who had callous disregard for the fact that he wanted that heart to keep beating. I also know that there are many who believe that Jaime’s unlawful presence in the US is a crime and that people need to be punished for crimes. People with this opinion have left me countless comments, questioned my integrity and my heart, sent disgusting letters to my home, and in a few cases threatened my safety. I have heard their opinions and our President has given them a national platform. But the morality of this situation is not so cut and dry to me. I wish I had more time to learn Jaime’s story because perhaps there would be some clues to fill in the background of his story. It sounds to me like his family was killed in the eighties during the Civil War in Guatemala and that he was brought to this country at age seven. I don’t know what kind of life he lived and I don’t know what kind of man he was. Perhaps he did something bad. I don’t know if the kind of bad exists that means a man can’t get heart medicine. But even so, immigration jails and immigration laws are for punishing immigration violations and if fleeing war at age 7 and staying in the US were his, I cannot say that the dehumanization, the suffering, and the fear he endured in while custody were fair. But this is Trump’s morally revolting America and everyday our country is pushing the limits of inhumane punishment it will inflict on immigrants under the banner of “they broke the law”.
I am sad and disoriented by the magnitude of what Jaime’s removal represents to me as a lawyer. Some days when I am working with the Department of Homeland Security or with Immigration Judges it feels like the Rule of Law is disintegrating in the face of both Obama and Trump’s abuses of power and the frightening political propaganda surrounding the immigration debate. Maybe its been going on longer but I haven’t been paying attention for too long. I suppose I am holding on to a fantasy that, being an attorney, I have the tools to use the system to protect vulnerable people and to create space where justice is real. But those tools and that system depends on all the players buying into fairness and humanity and they do not. And now terrible things are starting to happen. ICE raided a humanitarian camp where activists were helping give water and medical aid to migrants in 120 degree heat. They continue to detain children. They are scaring women from coming to court to testify against their abusers. They are targeting parents. They are coming at our neighbors and friends without common decency. The chief of ICE went to the news last week to tell immigrants to look over their shoulders and be afraid. This scares me. And a lot of us are consenting to this, whether directly or, indirectly, by not caring or turning away from it or submitting to our own dis-empowerment.
Hopefully Jaime‘s heart will keep going. It sounds like he is a survivor and that he is resilient. I suppose the good news is that when our legal tools failed to slow down Jaime’s removal it was reaching out to friends and colleagues that delivered him a small measure of safety. There are good and brave people everywhere. If our legal tools are getting dull, how can we activate that goodness and organize it to buy the time to sharpen those tools as we adapt to changing times and a disorienting and sad new reality? I will be thinking about Jaime and praying his heart stays strong. I think it is probably worth considering our hearts too.