Advocates: Asylum-Seeking Mom’s Seizures ‘Uncontrolled’ in Texas Detention Center

Susana Arevalo Hernandez and her kids were picked up by immigration officials during ramped-up raids in early January.

A section of the border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border near Brownsville.
Jen Reel
A section of the border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border near Brownsville.

Immigration advocates, attorneys and a doctor are calling for the immediate release of a Salvadoran mother suffering from multiple seizures inside a Texas immigrant family detention center. They say she is not getting the proper medical attention she needs to manage her condition, despite repeated requests for care.

Susana Arevalo Hernandez and her two children were picked up by immigration officials in early January as part of the Obama administration’s response to increased numbers of Central American women and their children seeking asylum in the United States. The raids targeted 121 migrant mothers and children with outstanding deportation orders who arrived in the United States in 2014; most of those targeted were living in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina. Immigration attorneys say most of the 121 women and children have already been deported but 33 members of 12 different families remain detained either in the 2,400-bed South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley or in the Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials arrived at Arevalo’s Atlanta home on January 2 demanding immigration documents, according to Arevalo’s sworn statement, provided to the Observer by her attorneys. The 27-year-old mother had been on medication for seizures since before leaving El Salvador in June 2014. Once in the United States, she went to a community clinic for care and was scheduled to see a neurologist this month in Atlanta. But she was picked up by ICE before the appointment, according to Dr. Allen Keller, a professor at the New York University School of Medicine who evaluated Arevalo at the detention center at her attorney’s request.

Speaking through a translator by phone from the detention center, Arevalo told the Observer that she left El Salvador because she feared for her and her children’s safety amid rampant threats of gang violence in their home country.

Arevalo’s seizures began when she was 12, but she had been managing them well with medication, she said. But she said her seizures have increased in frequency in the weeks since she was taken into custody and placed inside the Dilley facility.

Arevalo has had seven seizures since being picked up by ICE in January: one while being held in a temporary center in Atlanta and six more inside the Dilley family detention center, the most recent on Thursday. She said each time she has an “attack,” she feels faint and nauseous and blacks out before collapsing. She said facility staff members draw blood after every seizure and that she has been getting her medication, but little else.

Keller told the Observer that her attacks are triggered by “stress and anxiety.”

“Her seizures are not controlled,” Keller said. “She continues to have a lot of seizures, so with a patient like this, and in my own medical and professional opinion, it’s essential that [she] be closely followed by a neurologist.”

Richard Rocha, an ICE spokesman, told the Observer in an emailed statement that “health care personnel at the South Texas Family Residential Center have been closely monitoring [Arevalo] since her arrival at the center when she reported having a chronic seizure condition for which she had been prescribed medication prior to her recent apprehension by ICE.”

“Her medication has continued while at the facility and she has been in close communication with onsite medical professionals about her symptoms,” he wrote. “The medical staff at the facility have been working with Ms. Arevalo to determine what additional treatment regimens she can consider to help manage her condition.”

Still, Keller said that Arevalo’s “complex” condition requires specialized attention and more tests, which she does not have access to inside Dilley. Her seizures are exacerbated by the prison-like nature of detention, he said, as well as by fear that any moment she and her children could be deported back to El Salvador.

“There is no question that she is feeling enormous stress, profound symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, nervousness and helplessness,” Keller said. “In my professional opinion, I view it as an urgent medical matter that she be released as soon as possible.”

Arevalo also said her 6-year-old son suffers from a learning disability, which Keller said detention centers are ill-equipped to address.

Almost four weeks ago, the CARA Pro Bono Project, a team of immigration attorneys providing free legal assistance to families detained at the Dilley facility, secured a temporary stay from the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) on Arevalo’s deportation order, along with a stay for 11 other families targeted in the January raids. Despite the BIA’s intervention, they remain in detention.

Since the Obama administration ramped up its policy of detaining migrant mothers and children in 2014 and expanded family detention capacity by opening the South Texas Family Residential Center in December 2014, immigration and human rights activists and attorneys have been calling for an end to the practice.

Ian Philabaum, advocacy coordinator with the CARA project, said the continued detention of mothers and children, including those targeted on January 2, violates the 1997 settlement agreement in Flores v. Meese, which states that children should not be held in unlicensed detention centers.

“What this comes down to is, you have egregious human rights violations and egregious due process violations for the families that have been victims of these ICE raids,” he said, especially against children. “Every second they spend here is unnecessary detention of an asylum-seeking minor.”

In addition to their lawyers’ efforts, seven women still in detention appealed directly to President Barack Obama this week, writing a letter asking to be released.

“Instead of giving us and our children the resources to have a chance to win our cases, you have used us and made us more vulnerable,” they wrote. “Please, take us out of this detention center because we and our children are sick with depression and in psychological crisis.”

Arevalo, one of the seven women who signed the letter, says that with each day inside the Dilley center, she feels weaker.

“Every time I have a seizure, I think I’m not coming back,” Arevalo said. “I don’t want my children to see that.”

Alexa Garcia-Ditta is a staff writer (and former intern) covering women's health, reproductive health and health care access.

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Published at 3:54 pm CST