Santa Ana to Settle Lawsuit Alleging Denial of Rights to Deaf Woman in ICE Detention

Rosario Maciel Avitia remained at Santa Ana Jail under Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention five months longer than she should have. Avitia, deaf since birth, communicates primarily by American Sign Language (ASL) and isn’t fluent in English. According to a lawsuit filed on her behalf, when ICE agents arrested Avitia on May 29, 2015, jail staff failed to “effectively communicate” that she became eligible for bond just days later. As a result, ICE kept Avitia away from family until November, when they released her.

The Santa Ana City Council reached a tentative $140,000 settlement in the case last week, even as councilman Jose Solorio attempted to revive the now-expiring ICE jail contract in vain during that same meeting. “We are pleased to have gained protective injunctive relief to prevent what happened to the plaintiffs in this case from happening to another deaf, hard-of-hearing person housed in the Santa Ana city jail,” attorney Trevor Finneman told the Weekly. “I genuinely want to commend the city of Santa Ana and ICE for working with us so that we could reach a tentative settlement in the very early stages of this litigation.”

Avitia missing bond due to a lack of accommodations isn’t the only violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act the suit alleges. Throughout the undocumented woman’s five-month detention at the jail, she was denied other key rights. Avitia didn’t receive the services of qualified ASL interpreters or other forms of auxiliary aid at any point during her detention and because of that, she didn’t understand important information about the jail during booking.

Avitia also requested an interpreter to help with medical staff appointments about clinical depression, back and knee pain. But without any auxiliary aid, she had her depression medication changed four times during her detention while pains only worsened.

Without a text telephone or videophone for the deaf, Avitia couldn’t communicate with family or disability advocates like other non-hard-of-hearing detainees with access to telephones. Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD) put out a video in September 2015 of Avitia’s son signing about his mom’s plight. “I haven’t had any communication with my mom,” the transcript of his signing reads in the first comment of the YouTube video. “It’s not right that other detainees can use the phone and call their family anytime but my mom can’t.”

Avitia requested an interpreter in vain for jail programs like educational courses and religious services. Not even weekly film screenings came with the closed captions despite Avitia repeatedly asking jail staff to turn them on. Attorneys sued Santa Ana and ICE last June on the basis of “failing and refusing to take reasonable steps to ensure that deaf and hard-of-hearing detainees at the Santa Ana City Jail are not excluded, denied services, segregated, or otherwise treated differently than other detainees.” They claim Avitia still suffers from “emotional and physical” injuries due to her mistreatment in detention.

The alleged violation of Avitia’s disability rights also affected her advocates with Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness (GLAD), particularly when a staffer had to make 80-mile round trips to visit in person because of the detainee being unable to access a text telephone device. “We focused on communication accessibility for deaf people,” says Dr. Patricia Hughes, CEO of GLAD. “We are pleased with the changes that the city of Santa Ana will make to make its facility accessible to inmates who are deaf.”

What those details are remain unknown at this stage. GLAD requested an injunction that compels Santa Ana Jail and ICE to adopt non-discriminatory policies, revise training and make communication devices such as text telephones readily available for deaf and hard-of-hearing detainees. Even though ICE is ending its jail contract with Santa Ana in mid-May, the injunction would still apply to both local and federal agencies.

Santa Ana still has to finalize and pay Avitia’s tentative settlement. No such terms have been reached yet with ICE, who offered no comment at this time with the suit still pending. Both have 90 days from February 20 to sign off on final agreements.

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