Hell on American Soil II

It occurred to me that certain Red-Blooded Patriotic Americans will look at my post yesterday regarding the treatment of immigration detainees and say something like: "So what? They shouldn't be here in the first place! They had it coming!"

There are two responses to this argument. First, it is not necessarily true that the people ICE has in custody are in the U.S. illegally. Many are being held pending the outcome of immigration proceedings. Sometimes they win and are allowed to remain here.

Second, the right-wing respect for "Rule of Law" is quite selective. We also have laws against abusing and neglecting prisoners. Why should people who break those laws get a pass?

If you don't have time to read the entire series of Washington Post stories, at least take a minute to read about Isaias Vasquez. Here is his story:

Vasquez had come from Mexico to the United States legally with his family when he was 2 years old. He served in the Army for two years until psychiatric problems ended his military career. Years later, when he was convicted on a drug-possession charge, he served the 1 1/2-year sentence at a Texas state psychiatric hospital. The government said the crime made him deportable, and immigration officers picked him up from the hospital and sent him to one detention center, then another. Records chronicle his paranoid delusions and auditory hallucinations.

He had been diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia in the early 1990s and had been hospitalized 18 times before he landed in Pearsall. But the staff ruled that he was not schizophrenic and cut off his medication.

Instead, on Nov. 29, 2005, they diagnosed him with an "unspecified personality disorder." Vasquez "insisted throughout session he was paranoid schizophrenic and needed medication," a social worker wrote in his medical file. But the evaluation team concluded that "his thought process and content was normal, logical and coherent." They suspected he was faking to keep his Social Security disability benefits.

They decided to take him off a drug for schizophrenia, and another for depression, and cut his dose of a second antidepressant in half. The effects were swift. A week later Vasquez was placed on suicide observation. He "smeared feces throughout the suicide observation room," his medical chart shows. The next day, "he announced in the dormitory that either he killed himself or God would do it for him, and he took all of his clothes off. Then he got down onto the floor and licked it."

The staff's response: They eliminated the last of his psychotropic medicine. "Mental health visits will cease at present time," says a Dec. 15 note in his medical file.


After another month, he was found sitting on his bed with only a blanket around his waist, reading a Bible aloud and screaming, "The world is coming to an end, but not until I finish using my red tape!" He refused his other medications for diabetes, high blood pressure and suspected tuberculosis.

In mid-March, Johnson stuck a handwritten note on Vasquez's cell window: "If you keep refusing to take your . . . medicines . . . YOU put YOURSELF at risk of BLINDNESS, AMPUTATIONS, HEART ATTACKS, KIDNEY FAILURE, STROKES and EARLY DEATH."

Vasquez "covered that area of the window with spit," Johnson wrote in his medical file. "I slid another copy under the door, and he turned it face down and slid it back out, and then he blocked the door with his clothing so I could not slide it under again."

On March 24, "[H]e had saved up 6 empty peanut butter jars and had some sort of yellowish liquid in them. . . . [T]he guards told him to give them up. He refused." The guards subdued him with tear gas.

They gassed him again two weeks later when he refused to give the guards the broken eyeglasses he had "tied to his head with an undershorts waistband. . . . When the room was repeatedly sprayed, he stood stoically."

Unable to persuade Vasquez to take his medicine, the staff discontinued it in late April. A final note on his behavior, from May 1, five days before his release, says he had "smeared feces on window to cell and threw water and feces under door of cell."

Even then, the staff did not reconsider its assessment that he was not schizophrenic or its decision to take away the psychotropic drugs. Their assessment of his problem: "Ineffective individual coping."

Vasquez had won his immigration case. When his common-law wife picked him up, she found him raving and gaunt. Gloria Armendariz drove him straight to the VA hospital. On the way, she recalled, "I had to cut the [car] speakers and put them in the trunk because he kept saying they . . . would listen and videotape him."

At the hospital, guards had to subdue him. He was admitted to the psychiatric ward, "which is where he needs to be," said his lawyer, Lee Teran. The next day, he was started on antipsychotics.

Helped by his medicine and no longer facing deportation, Vasquez, now 49, did something that, in his nearly five decades in the country, he'd never bothered to do: He applied to become a citizen. At the citizenship ceremony last fall, he wore a jacket, a tie and a broad smile.

Yes, the story has a happy ending, but is there any excuse for a human being to be treated this way? If a dog was forced to live in his own filth without medical treatment, people would be outraged. Yet as far as I can tell, no one at ICE has been punished or disciplined in any way for what they did to Isaias Vasquez. You can bet many more such stories remain untold.

This is the thanks our nation gives a sick veteran. God bless America.

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