The 26-year-old undocumented woman was in a detention center in Texas when she started complaining of headaches earlier this month.
The pain was caused by a brain tumor and, today, lawyers for the woman who remains in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement fear she’ll die there without ever seeing or speaking to her family again.
It’s a scenario that advocates worry could become far more common under President Donald Trump’s new immigration enforcement rules.
According to her legal team, helmed by attorney Marcia Kasdan, the woman — who we will identify as Sara to protect her privacy — was being held at the Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado, Texas, when she started complaining of terrible headaches.
In her court testimony, Sara acknowledged that she illegally crossed the border on Nov. 4, 2015, and border patrol agents apprehended her. A sworn statement from Border Patrol agent Roberto Gonzalez Jr. says Sara told him on Nov. 8, 2015 that she came to the U.S. to work, and not to seek asylum.
She told an immigration judge on Jan. 12, 2016, that she actually did come to the U.S. from her native El Salvador seeking asylum, and that she feared her aunt — who she said is gang-affiliated — would kill her because she was in a relationship with a Salvadoran police officer. But Sara missed the deadline to file her asylum claim, so the judge ordered her deportation. Her legal team, which began working with her after she missed that deadline and acknowledges that it was missed, appealed. She has been in detention since then.
Earlier this month, according to her lawyers, Sara’s head started hurting. And on Feb. 10, at the detention center, she collapsed. The detention center staff had her hospitalized at Texas Health Huguley Hospital in Burleson, Texas. And there, according to her lawyers, doctors concluded she had a brain tumor. The lawyers tell The Daily Beast that they expect doctors to perform surgery soon and say Sara told her mother in a 5-minute phone conversation on Feb. 19 that she had been bleeding profusely through her nose, as well as experiencing convulsions and some memory loss.
As of press time, she can’t talk to her lawyers or family. Sara’s lawyers are based in New Jersey, near where some of her extended family lives. They said they’ve also been blocked from speaking to her on the phone because of ICE rules limiting communication with hospitalized detainees––despite what they believe is a situation of medical urgency.
Danielle Bennett, an ICE public affairs officer, provided The Daily Beast with this statement:
“Requests by family members to visit ICE detainees who have been hospitalized are permitted but must be approved in advance with ICE and the appropriate consulate,” she said. “ICE is currently reaching out to the family’s attorney to explain the process.”
With scant information about her health situation, Sara’s family members fear the worst: that she could lose consciousness or die before they can get through ICE’s process.
In hopes of helping Sara, her lawyers asked Fatma Marouf—an attorney who heads Texas A&M’s Immigrant Rights Clinic—to try to gather more information about her health. Marouf told The Daily Beast that she went to Huguley Hospital on Tuesday afternoon, where two guards tried to stop her from entering Sara’s room. The guards told her Sara was on a no-contact list and couldn’t communicate with anyone—period.
Marouf told The Daily Beast that she entered Sara’s room over the guard’s objections.
“They couldn’t physically stop me from talking to her,” Marouf said. “I went over to her and I just said, ‘We want you to know that your family is working to get you out, and there are attorneys working on your case.’”
She then asked Sara how she was doing.
“She just said, ‘My head,’” Marouf said.
Then the guards threatened to call police if Marouf didn’t leave.
“She’s in this critical window right now,” Marouf said. “We don’t know if she’s going to stay conscious.”
Marouf added that along with blocking Sara from speaking with her family and lawyers over the phone, she also hasn’t been allowed to communicate with the hospital chaplain. Sara is a devout Evangelical Christian, according to court documents.
Marouf added that she’s gotten conflicting messages from ICE and the hospital about who specifically is responsible for blocking visits. She said that one ICE official told her it was the hospital’s decision — not the government’s — that kept anyone from seeing her in person or speaking with her on the phone.
ICE didn’t respond to a question about that statement.
Elijah Bruette, the hospital’s director of Business Development and Community Relations, told The Daily Beast, “The health, comfort and privacy of each patient we are entrusted to care for are our top priorities. We do not discuss specific patient information in compliance with HIPAA guidelines.”
Bruette did not respond to a follow-up question about the hospital’s policy regarding undocumented patients’ access to attorneys.
In the meantime, Sara’s family and attorneys say they face a Kafkaesque, bureaucratic nightmare: unsure who has the power to let them speak to her and unsure if she will maintain consciousness long enough to tell them what happened. They say her doctors haven’t spoken to any of Sara’s family members or anyone on her legal team.
Trump’s executive orders on immigration will dramatically expand the number of people facing detention and deportation — including people who haven’t been convicted of any violent crimes, like Sara, and people who have lived in the U.S. for years. Advocates say that means situations like hers will become much more common.
“You are bound to see more cases like this if ICE fulfills the government’s orders and dramatically expands detention,” said Bob Libal, who heads Grassroots Leadership, an activist group based in Austin that opposes immigrant detention and deportation. “You are bound to see more stories where people have suffered these kind of medical tragedies in detention.”