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No papers, no care: Disabled migrants seek help through lawsuit, activism

Heidi de Marco, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

Most of the plaintiffs have been released or deported. José Baca Hernández, now living in Santa Ana, California, is one of them.

Brought to Orange County as a toddler, Baca has no memory of Cuernavaca, the Mexican city where he was born. But his lack of legal status in the U.S. has overshadowed his efforts to get the care he needs since being blinded by a gunshot six years ago. Baca declined to describe the circumstances of his injury but has filed for a special visa provided to crime victims.

ICE detained Baca shortly after his injury, and he spent five years in detention. An eye doctor saw Baca once during that time, he says; he relied on other detainees to read him information on his medical care and immigration case. Mostly, he was alone in a cell with little to do.

“I had a book on tape,” said Baca. “That was pretty much it.”

According to the lawsuit, treatment and care for disabilities are practically nil in government detention centers, said Rosa Lee Bichell, a fellow with Disability Rights Advocates, one of the groups that filed the case.

Her clients say that “unless you are writhing or fainted on the floor, it’s nearly impossible to get any kind of medical care related to disabilities,” she said.

 

“There is kind of a void in the immigration advocacy landscape that doesn’t directly focus on addressing the needs of people with disabilities,” said Munmeeth Soni, litigation and advocacy director at the Immigrant Defenders Law Center in Los Angeles. “It’s a population that I think has really gone overlooked.”

ICE and Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.

COVID-19 poses a particular threat to people with disabilities who are detained by ICE. On Aug. 25, for example, 1,089 of the 25,000-plus people in ICE facilities were under isolation or observation for the virus.

In an interim ruling, the federal judge hearing Baca’s class-action lawsuit this summer ordered ICE to offer vaccination to all detained immigrants who have chronic medical conditions or disabilities or are 55 or older. The Biden administration appealed the order on Aug. 23.

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