Desperation drove José Luis Hernández to climb to the top of a bullet train through northern Mexico in the hope of reaching the United States 13 years ago. But he did not succeed. Slipping from a step above a train coupling, it slid under the steel wheels. Subsequently, he lost his right arm and leg, and everything except a finger on his left hand.
He had left his hometown in Honduras for the United States “to help my family, because there were no jobs, no opportunities,” he said. Instead, he ended up undergoing a series of surgeries in Mexico before returning home “in the same miserable conditions in my country, but in a worse situation”.
It will be years before it finally arrives in the United States. Now 35 and living in Los Angeles, Hernández began organizing other immigrants with disabilities to fight for the right to health care and other services.
No statistics are available on the number of undocumented disabled immigrants to the United States. But whether they are in detention, working undocumented in the United States, or awaiting asylum hearings on the Mexican side of the border, undocumented immigrants with disabilities are “without a right to services,” said Monica Espinoza, coordinator of the Hernández group, Immigrants With Handicapées.
People with political asylum or other types of asylum can purchase private health insurance through the Affordable Care Act or get public assistance if they are entitled to it. Additionally, Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program, provides services to people under the age of 26, regardless of their immigration status. These benefits will be extended next spring to include income-eligible undocumented people aged 50 and over.
“It’s a small victory for us,” said Blanca Angulo, a 60-year-old Mexican undocumented immigrant who now lives in Riverside, California. She was a professional dancer and sketch actress in Mexico City before immigrating to the United States in 1993. At 46, Angulo was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic condition that gradually left her blind.
“I was depressed for two years after my diagnosis,” she said – almost blind and unemployed, undocumented, and struggling to pay for expensive doctor’s visits and eye medication.
The situation is particularly grim for undocumented migrants with disabilities held in detention centers, said Pilar Gonzalez Morales, a lawyer at the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center in Los Angeles.
“They are suffering more and more because of the lack of care and the lack of housing,” she said. In addition, “COVID has made it more difficult to get the medical care they need.”
Gonzalez Morales is one of the attorneys working on a nationwide class action lawsuit filed by people with disabilities who have been held in immigration detention centers in the United States. The complaint accuses the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security of discriminating against detainees by failing to provide them with adequate mental and physical health care. The 15 plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, which is due to be tried in April, suffer from disorders ranging from bipolar disorder to paralysis, deafness and blindness. They are not asking for pecuniary damages, but are asking the US government to improve the care of those in its care, for example by providing wheelchairs or American Sign Language interpreters, and by abstaining from segregation. extended period of people with disabilities.
Most of the complainants have been released or deported. José Baca Hernández, who now lives in Santa Ana, California, is one of them.
Brought to Orange County as a child, Baca has no memory of Cuernavaca, the Mexican city where he was born. But his lack of legal status in the United States has eclipsed his efforts to get the care he needs since being blinded by gunshot six years ago. Baca declined to describe the circumstances of his injury, but requested a special visa granted to victims of crime.
ICE detained Baca shortly after his injury and he spent five years in custody. An ophthalmologist saw Baca once during this time, he says; he relied on other detainees to read him information about his medical care and immigration records. Most of the time he was alone in a cell with little to do.
“I had a book on tape,” Baca said. “It was pretty much it.”
According to the lawsuit, treatment and care for people with disabilities is virtually non-existent in government detention centers, said Rosa Lee Bichell, a member of Disability Rights Advocates, one of the groups that filed the case.
Her clients say that “unless you twist or pass out on the floor, it’s almost impossible to get disability-related medical care,” she said.
“There is a kind of vacuum in the immigration advocacy landscape that doesn’t focus directly on meeting the needs of people with disabilities,” said Munmeeth Soni, director of litigation and defense at the Immigrant Defenders Law Center. of Los Angeles. “It’s a population that I think has really been overlooked.”
ICE and Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.
COVID-19 poses a particular threat to persons with disabilities detained by ICE. As of August 25, for example, 1,089 of the 25,000 and more people at ICE facilities were in isolation or under observation for the virus.
In an interim ruling, the federal judge who heard Baca’s class action lawsuit this summer ordered ICE to offer vaccination to all immigrant detainees with chronic illnesses or disabilities or aged 55 or older. The Biden administration appealed the order on August 23.
Hernández, who lost his limbs in the train crash, was among the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Central America who cross northern Mexico each year on top of trains, known collectively as “La Bestia” or “the Beast”, depending on migration policy. Institute. Injuries are common on La Bestia. And more than 500 deaths have been reported in Mexico since 2014 among those seeking entry to the United States
Hernández, who finally arrived in the United States in 2015, was granted humanitarian asylum after spending two months in a detention center in Texas, but quickly realized that there was little support for the people. disadvantaged.
In 2019, with the help of a local church, he formed the group Immigrants With Disabilities, which tries to organize regular gatherings for its more than 40 members, although the pandemic has made it difficult to meet. Hernández is the only person in the group with legal papers and health benefits, he said.
Angulo found solace in connecting with the other members of the group. “We encourage each other,” she said. ” It feels less lonely. “
She volunteers as a guide for people recently diagnosed with blindness at the Braille Institute, teaching them how to cook, shower and groom themselves in the pursuit of self-sufficiency. Angulo would like to have a job but says she lacks opportunities.
“I want to work. I am capable,” she said. “But people don’t want to take a risk with me. They see me as a risk.
She is also wary of any organization that offers medical or financial assistance to undocumented migrants. “They ask me for all my information and at the end of the day they say I’m not eligible,” she said. “Being blind and undocumented makes me particularly vulnerable. “
(KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three main operational programs of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a nonprofit staffed organization providing information about health issues to the nation. This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an independent editorial service of the California Health Care Foundation.)
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