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Immigrant's custody death prompts lawsuit

February 14, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
A lawsuit has been filed against the federal government over the death of a suspected illegal immigrant who was in custody. Family members claim his life could have been saved.

Do suspected illegal immigrants receive substandard medical care? That is the claim of the lawsuit. Family members announced the lawsuit Monday in downtown Los Angeles.

Are illegal immigrants treated differently than other prison while in custody? The case in question centers around a man who was in an Orange County jail facility under the authority of the federal immigration service. His family claims he received substandard medical care that led to his death.

The family of Jose Aguilar-Espinoza came to federal court Monday to blame the government for their father's death.

"I feel a lot of pain for what happened to my dad," said Aguilar-Espinoza's daughter, Nora Espinoza, through an interpreter. "We're trying to speak so this type of injustice will not happen to other people."

Aguilar-Espinoza was in custody awaiting deportation proceedings. On January 31, he was at the Orange County Theo Lacy Facility jail when he went into cardiac arrest. He was transferred next door to UCI Medical Center, where he died a short time later. Attorneys for the family say it shouldn't have happened.

"They had ample notice that the decedent needed immediate medical care," said attorney Dale Galipo. "He was denied immediate medical care and as a result of that, he has died."

Aguilar-Espinoza had a pacemaker, and on the day he died, his attorneys say, he became dizzy and began to vomit. But jail officials allegedly waited too long before sending him to the hospital.

"He had the card where it indicated he's incapacitated, medically incapacitated. He had with him the ID to show his medical condition," said Aguilar-Espinoza's sister-in-law, Mayra Mejia, through a translator.

In a statement, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said: "An autopsy has been scheduled to determine the cause of death. Consistent with ICE protocol, the appropriate state health and local law enforcement agencies have been informed."

The family is filing a wrongful-death lawsuit. It claims there have been 118 deaths of illegal immigrants in federal custody since 2003, and that illegal immigrants are being treated differently than other prisoners.

"A 55-year-old man with an artificial pacemaker requires good medical attention, not substandard medical care that was given to him," said attorney Luis Carrillo.

The family says it does not trust the federal government to conduct an impartial investigation. So they're asking the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to examine the case as well.