Martin Vargas Arellano

Immigration activists and legal groups, including the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project in Los Angeles and the ACLU of Southern California, are accusing the federal agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of failing to inform them or anyone else about the release of a Mexican immigrant identified as Martin Vargas-Arellano, who died this month from a COVID-19 infection and a stroke three days after being freed from their detention center in Adelanto.

This latest death raises questions whether detainees there are getting proper medical attention, and whether ICE is deliberately releasing critically ill detainees so the death doesn’t happen in their custody.

“ICE officials knew that Martin was dying and they withheld this information from us so that his death would not happen in ICE custody,” said Margaret Hellerstein, Vargas-Arellano’s attorney. “Not only did they fail to release him while he still had a chance, but they also deliberately led me to believe that he had been released into the community and was simply missing.”

She said the agency purposefully concealed the seriousness of Vargas-Arellano’s declining health and only let him go so he wouldn’t die in the detention center, where he had been jailed since April 2019.

The ACLU also expressed outrage on Twitter.

“Martin’s death raises questions about whether immigration authorities are undercounting immigrant deaths during the pandemic by releasing people just before they die. The administration must end the unnecessary and cruel incarceration of immigrants,” the ACLU said.

Vargas-Arellano was still in custody despite a court order issued in April 2020 for his release based on his medical condition, and the risk of serious illness and death if he became infected with COVID-19. The decision was stayed and the Mexican immigrant was not released.

This was not the first time a critically ill detainee had been freed from ICE detention only to die soon after release.

The most recent known case occurred in 2019. Jose Luis Ibarra Bucio, 27, also passed away shortly after being released to a hospital from the Adelanto Detention facility.

At the time of his death, Bucio — a Mexican immigrant who was brought to Long Beach with his family when he was age 4 — was in a coma after collapsing with a brain hemorrhage and never regained consciousness, according to published reports

He was detained by ICE in January that year after leaving the California State Prison in Corcoran, where he had served a seven-month sentence for a felony conviction: fleeing a police officer in his car while driving recklessly.

Before the conviction, Bucio worked as a truck driver with a work permit made available through the federal program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, or DACA. His DACA status expired while Bucio was in prison.

Bucio was taken by ICE officials to the immigrant civilian detention at Adelanto for possible deportation. 

A report from the San Bernardino County Sheriff Coroner’s Office determined Bucio died from ruptured abnormal blood vessels. According to his family, Bucio’s hand was forcibly used to sign his immigration papers.

Attorney Claims Not Told of Vargas-Arellano’s Death

Vargas-Arellano, 55, suffered a stroke on March 3, 2021. He was “officially” released by ICE on March 5, and died on March 8.

Hellerstein said she was not informed of his release and only found out about it several days later after she had tracked him to St. Jude Hospital in Fullerton. She said ICE officials told her that he was no longer their responsibility after his release.

Hellerstein said the Orange County Coroner’s office confirmed Vargas-Arellano’s death.

“It’s chilling to think that when I was on the phone begging ICE for information so that I could track Martin down, he had already been dead for a week,” said Hellerstein, who works for the Esperanza Immigrants Right Project.

The attorney notes that Vargas-Arellano was vulnerable to COVID-19 due to numerous pre-existing conditions including diabetes, hepatitis C, gout, high blood pressure, and schizophrenia. He was said to have needed a wheelchair, and had been hospitalized several times before he contracted COVID in December of 2020, and never recovered.

Hellerstein said Vargas-Arellano “was left to die by ICE,” which released him only when “his medical condition worsened to the point that it was clear he would not recover.”

“Martin had no immediate family members and no one to speak up for him except his attorneys. If we do not hold ICE accountable, they will continue to treat vulnerable immigrants as though their lives mean nothing. The fact that ICE went to such great lengths to cover this up is evidence that they know what they did was wrong. They just don’t care,” Hellerstein concluded. 

A Criminal Record

Vargas-Arellano had lived in the US since he was a child but was often in trouble with the law, mostly for drug possession, theft and burglary convictions.

In 1985, at age 19, he was convicted of sexual abuse of a minor under 14. In 1993, Vargas-Arellano was convicted of domestic violence.

In April 2019, Vargas-Arellano was arrested for petty theft and failing to register as a sex offender.

While not denying his criminal record, Hellerstein said those cases date back several decades.

“His serious crimes were more than 30 years ago. He was gravely disabled. He used a wheelchair much of the time. He was on insulin. This was not somebody who was capable of a violent offense,” she said.

Now a federal judge has ordered ICE to explain the “release” of Vargas-Arellano to a hospital.

US District Judge Terry J. Hatter, who had previously ruled on Vargas-Arellano’s release in 2020 — and has criticized ICE for not releasing enough detainees at the Adelanto Detention Center in order to provide six feet of social distancing during the pandemic — has now ordered the agency to explain what happened in this case.

He has ordered the agency to provide a detailed account of Vargas-Arellano’s health deterioration, the medical care he received as well as his release, and why they did not notify his family or attorneys.

Hellerstein shares those concerns.

“It’s devastating,” she said. “They watched this man deteriorate for a year and did nothing to help. We demanded his release multiple times but ICE and GEO repeatedly refused.

“This is the second time they released someone days before their death. What’s more, they covered it up. This is unconscionable,” she said.