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August 12, 2021

Attempted Coverup of Death of Martin Vargas, who had COVID-19, is Basis for Order

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can no longer keep the deaths of detainees who contracted COVID-19 at its Adelanto center off its books by suddenly releasing the detainees shortly before they die. 

The U.S. District Court order came in the wake of the death of detainee Martin Vargas, a class member in the Hernandez Roman v Wolf lawsuit on the spread of the virus at the detainee center. Vargas, who was desperately ill, was secretly released to a hospital in March just three days before he died without any notice to his family or immigration attorney. 

Federal officials at Adelanto were so obstinate in disclosing information on Vargas that his attorney had to file a missing persons report to find out what happened to her client. 

"ICE saw Martin as less than human and thought they could get away with treating him like garbage,” said his attorney, Margaret Hellerstein. “This decision proves they were wrong.”

The federal court order issued Monday evening accepted the recommendations of a special master assigned to investigate the Vargas death. 

“Throughout the pandemic, ICE’s callous disregard for the health and humanity of immigrants in its custody has been appalling,” said Jessica Bansal, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, a co-counsel in the lawsuit. “The agency’s treatment of Mr. Vargas in this case was simply unforgivable.”

The court ordered:

  • Adelanto officials must report to the ACLU SoCal and the special master anytime a detainee who tested positive for COVID-19 is confined to the facility’s infirmary, taken to a hospital, or dies. And the ACLU SoCal and special master have the right to examine the detainee’s medical record.
  • Adelanto officials must include, in daily status reports, any time a detainee is hospitalized or in the infirmary for the treatment of COVID-19 symptoms.
  • The government is ordered to pay Hellerstein legal fees from March 5 — the day Vargas was secretly released — to March 18 when she finally obtained notice from the Orange County coroner that her client had died.

Read the court order

Read the special master’s findings on the death of Vargas 

Timeline recap of the death of Vargas:

March 3: Vargas, who had previously been hospitalized with COVID, suffers a stroke. (ICE does not report this to his attorney or to the ACLU SoCal). 

March 5: Vargas is transferred from the detention center to St. Jude’s Hospital in Fullerton. (Again, ICE does not inform his attorneys).

March 8: Vargas dies, with no notice given. 

March 15: ACLU SoCal attorney Bansal sees on a weekly report by ICE that Vargas was “released” on March 5. No further information is disclosed. She notifies Hellerstein.

March 16: Not being able to locate her client, Hellerstein files a missing person’s report.

March 17: The deputy handling the missing person case tells Hellerstein that her client’s last known address was St. Jude’s Hospital in Fullerton. 

March 18: Hellerstein calls the Orange County Coroner, who reports that Vargas died in the hospital on March 8.