By Sandra Hernandez
Daily Journal Staff Writer
LOS ANGELES - A top federal immigration official misled Congress when she testified that a Mexican immigrant who died of complications from AIDS while in federal custody was never denied medication, relatives of the dead woman and fellow detainees said.
In written testimony to a Senate committee on immigration, Julie Myers said that Victoria Arellano, who died in July, was "never denied medication."
Arellano's family and fellow detainees, however, said they never said that Victoria was denied medication but that she was denied the medication that had kept her alive.
In her written testimony during confirmation hearings, Myers said Arellano told medical staff at San Pedro that she had AIDS but said "she was not taking any medication for her condition," a copy of Myers' testimony obtained by the Daily Journal says.
Detainees who shared a dormitory-style cell with Arellano disputed Myers' contention, saying Arellano spoke about the AIDS medication she had been taking before her arrest.
"Everyone knew she was taking medication before she arrived at San Pedro," said one detainee who did not want his name used because he has pending case. "Victoria said the reason she was getting sick in the center was because she wasn't getting the same medication she was taking outside."
Doctors at a Los Angeles free clinic where Arellano had been treated before her arrest said she did not require skilled nursing care and was asymptomatic before her arrest.
She had been prescribed daily doses of Bactrim, a prophylactic antibiotic given to HIV patients to prevent pulmonary infections from developing into life-threatening pneumonia. She was later switched to dapasone, another antibiotic, according to her medical records.
Arellano was taking dapasone when she was sent to the San Pedro detention center. Medical experts said taking HIV patients off dapasone for even a few weeks could produce deadly results.
"The consequences of taking someone off that medication is that, within a few weeks, a patient may unfortunately develop pneumonia and then not respond to treatment," said Homayoon Khanlou, chief of medicine for Los Angeles' AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the largest AIDS clinic in the U.S.
Arellano, a transgender person who called herself Victoria, died two months after being sent to the San Pedro center in May, too weak to stand but shackled to a hospital bed.
Arellano's family still has the bags of medication Victoria took daily before her arrest. Among those was dapasone.
Myers, who has been nominated to head the agency that oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement, testified that Arellano was transferred to a hospital, where she died of "complications associated with end-stage AIDS."
Arellano's fellow detainees, however, angrily pointed out that she was sent to the hospital only because they staged a noisy protest, shouting "Hospital, Hospital," to get detention center officials to act.
Fifty detainees signed a statement detailing Arellano's final weeks, describing how she was unable to see a doctor and spent most days in bed, complaining of debilitating headaches and back pain and at times vomiting blood.
Arellano wasn't given the drugs used to help her immune system stave off infections until two weeks before her death - six weeks after she was locked up, said Walter Ayala, a fellow detainee.
Initially, medical staff gave Arellano antidepressants and Tylenol, Ayala said. At some point when Arellano was becoming increasingly ill, medical staff at the center told her to take Tylenol and drink "lots of water," detainees said.
"She put in several sick call slips asking for help, but nothing happened," Ayala said. "I put in a sick call slip for her, virtually everyone in the [cell] put in a sick call slip on behalf of Victoria, but nothing ever happened."
Arellano's case, first reported in the Daily Journal, has raised questions in Congress about the quality of medical care provided to immigrants in detention centers.
Detainees said Arellano asked for AIDS medication when she met with doctors.
She was told to wait, and "nearly two weeks went by, and the medicine never arrived," Ayala said.
"She finally went to the doctor and got the medication, but during the time she waited, she got very sick. She couldn't eat. She had a high fever and was very weak," he said.
Myers also told lawmakers that Arellano was "evaluated multiple times" by medical staff at San Pedro.
But fellow detainees said Arellano's requests to see a doctor were often ignored, as were those filed on her behalf by other detainees who grew worried about her condition.
Detainees, however, agree with Myers' testimony describing how Arellano was forced to stop taking the AIDS medication she was finally given because of the side effects.
"By the time she got the drugs, she was already so sick," said Oscar Santander, a fellow detainee who helped care for Arellano. "She couldn't keep the drugs down."
Arellano's family plans to file a wrongful-death claim against the federal government.
Her death prompted a federal investigation into conditions at the troubled San Pedro Processing Detention Center.
During a failed deportation attempt in May, federal officials at the San Pedro facility forcibly administered psychotropic drugs to two immigrants who had no history of mental illness or violence.
Officials at the center suffered another black eye this summer when it lost accreditation from the American Correctional Association.
And this weekend, officials at the facility abruptly announced all detainees were being sent to other facilities around the nation because the San Pedro facility was being closed.
Neither Myers nor Department of Homeland Security officials could be reached for comment.
Since 2004, 64 people, including Arellano, have died while in federal immigration custody. Two other deaths occurred this summer.
Arellano's death comes as federal immigration officials push to lock up record numbers of immigrants. Nearly 30,000 men, women and children are detained in a patchwork of local jails, privately run facilities and federal detention centers.