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Fernando Dominguez Died In Administrative Limbo While In Immigration Detention

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On the morning of Friday, February 24, I got out of bed with my usual swagger. I made a pot a coffee, a light breakfast and started getting ready for work. Still with lazy eyes, I started answering some e-mails when my phone rang. The person on the other line identified himself as an agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement so I piqued up immediately (because if that doesn't wake you up, I don't know what else does).

Working for an immigrant rights coalition in California's Inland Empire has brought me in close contact with ICE agents and officials from the Department of Homeland Security (they have my phone number and vice versa). Wide-eyed, I listened as the agent asked for assistance from the coalition I work for. He informed me that a Mexican national in immigration custody was being hospitalized and in critical condition at a hospital in the High Desert, that medical staff said the man only had a few days left to live, and that ICE and DHS needed assistance transporting the man's family members to the Victor Valley Community Hospital where he was interned.

It was a task I accepted on behalf of every immigrant in this country and one that affected me in a very personal way, which is the reason why I probably shouldn't be writing this. But after obtaining permission from family members, I feel compelled to do so. So here it goes.

On behalf of the immigrant and activist community of the Inland Empire, the Justice for Immigrants Coalition (JFIC) of Inland Southern California would like to extend our deepest condolences to the family of Fernando Dominguez. He passed away on Monday March 4, 2012. The medical staff cite cardiac arrest as the cause of death. He was 58 years young.

According to reports, Mr. Dominguez is the sixth person to die in immigration custody in the 2012 fiscal year. I feel that is one too many.

Mr. Dominguez lived in the United States for over 20 years before being incarcerated at the Adelanto Detention Center, where he waited since November 2011 for his immigration hearing. While at Adelanto, Mr. Dominguez contracted pneumonia and because of a lack of proper medical care at the detention center, he was transferred to Victor Valley.

The case of Mr. Dominguez exhibits the tell-tale signs of a broken immigration system. For a person who resided in the U.S for two decades, had children born and raised in this country, and was not a violent criminal offender, his detention was made possible because of a disregard for prosecutorial discretion, a DHS mandate which was presumably meant to focus only on deporting serious criminal and violent offenders, and the use of Secure Communities, a fingerprinting program operated by ICE. Mr. Dominguez had an extended wait for an immigration hearing. One must wonder if he would be alive today if his case had come up quicker.

And the for-profit nature of detention centers like Adelanto adds money into the deportation dilemma -- not a good mix. GEO Inc., a for-profit facility, makes $98 a day for every bed occupied at Adelanto through a sub-contract with DHS.

Records were not readily available to the JFIC from the Rialto Police Dept. or DHS. But according to family members of the deceased, Mr. Dominguez was put in immigration detention due to the enforcement-only approach. One night in mid-November, along with friends, he traveled via charter bus to a casino in the San Bernardino area. Late into the night and under the influence, he left the casino and wandered off into the streets trying to walk back home to Los Angeles. A Good Samaritan pulled off onto the side of the road after seeing Mr. Dominguez wandering aimlessly and thought the man suffered from Alzheimer's. Unable to transport Mr. Dominguez to Los Angeles, the Good Samaritan contacted the Rialto Police Dept. to help him find his way home. RPD instead cited him for public intoxication and took him into custody.

With the implementation of S.Comm, Mr. Dominguez's fingerprints were matched for a bench warrant for not presenting himself on a court date almost two years ago. Officials said Mr. Dominguez had previous forgery and theft convictions. While in jail, ICE placed a hold on him and within 72 hours he was in ICE custody.

Mr. Dominguez's court hearing with an immigration judge was on February 6th, but he was showing symptoms of failing health dating to early January. His brother Rey said that in some of the letters Dominguez wrote, he had complained of ailments and asthma attacks and had even asked for medication while his court hearing was still pending. At the immigration hearing, the judge disregarded prosecutorial siscretion.

In his last days, DHS decided to drop or cancel the deportation proceedings and allow family members to take custody of Mr. Dominguez. It was a move that the family found very disrespectful because the family would incur the hospital expenses and consequently the burial; and allotted minimal time for relatives to see Mr. Dominguez before his passing. Rey said that he was incredulous about the cancellation of deportation, but that during a conversation with an ICE officer he was told, "What is the point of having an inmate in that condition? We're willing to release him to you."

ICE personnel from Adelanto contacted the JFIC for assistance in transporting the family members from LA to Victorville, and while the JFIC acknowledges and appreciates the relationship formed with DHS and GEO Inc. in doing this, a more suitable protocol should be in place for these types of situations.

While speaking with relatives I was driving back home to South L.A., all I could think of was the nagging feeling that tore at me like thorns saying "this in an injustice." The loss of this life is an injustice.

This is only one example of how the broken immigration and the enforcement-only approach is tearing families apart in the immigrant community. We are asking for a redress of grievances for the family of Mr. Dominguez as well the cease of S.Comm implementation from local law enforcement. But most of all, the immigrant community is asking for a more humane and fair approach to how we treat our fellow human beings. It is indeed a sad day when somebody dies while in detention for a civil, administrative immigration violation.

It's a sad day when a human life is lost for simply trying to find their way home.