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Asylum Seeker Battling Brain Tumor Removed from Texas Hospital in Handcuffs, Taken to Private Jail

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Update: Hours after our broadcast, Amnesty International announced Sara Beltran Hernandez will be released from detention today to be with her family and to seek treatment for a brain tumor.

As President Trump vows to deport “bad hombres,” we look at the shocking case of an asylum seeker from El Salvador who is being detained as she battles a brain tumor. Sara Beltran Hernandez was shackled at her hands and wrists, removed from the hospital and taken back to the Prairieland Detention Center near Dallas. We speak with her lawyer, Fatma Marouf, director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Texas A&M University; bioethics expert Bryn Esplin, assistant professor in the Department of Humanities in Medicine at Texas A&M School of Medicine; and Justin Mazzola, deputy director of research for Amnesty International USA, which has a campaign to win the release of Sara Beltran Hernandez.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As President Trump continues his crackdown on immigrants, we turn to a shocking case of an asylum seeker from El Salvador who’s being detained as she battles a brain tumor. Sara Beltran Hernandez first came to the U.S. by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in November of 2015. She immediately gave a sworn statement to Border Patrol agents that she sought to escape death threats she had received from gang members in her home town because her partner is a police officer. Since then, she’s been held in various jails, detention centers, while her asylum case is pending.

Then, on February 10th, Sara Beltran collapsed while she was held at the Prairieland Detention Center near Dallas, Texas. The 27-year-old mother of two was taken to the Texas Health [Huguley] Hospital. She was also bleeding from her nose and reportedly suffering convulsions and memory loss. Doctors diagnosed her with a brain tumor, more than half an inch in diameter, and said she needed surgery. It took eight days before she was given permission to call her relatives to tell them where she was and the state of her health. Her lawyer asked she be transferred to a hospital in New York City, close to where her family lives, but the request was rejected.

Last week, the staff at the Huguley Hospital reportedly told Beltran she would be transferred to another hospital for an operation. But instead, she was removed from the hospital with her wrists and ankles shackled together in handcuffs and taken back to jail. This week, doctors told Sara Beltran she has a large pituitary macroadenoma tumor that is not life-threatening but, quote, “could continue to grow” and needs close monitoring and regular MRIs. She still suffers from severe pain in her head, numbness in her face, has difficulty walking. Today, she has a bond hearing before an immigration judge, who could grant her release.

For more, we’re going to Dallas, Texas, to speak with Sara Beltran Hernandez’s attorney, Fatma Marouf. She is also the director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Texas A&M University, where she’s a professor of law. Also joining us in Dallas is Bryn Esplin, assistant professor in the Department of Humanities in Medicine at Texas A&M School of Medicine, where she teaches bioethics. On Monday, Esplin accompanied Sara to her doctor’s appointment and has spoken to her in detention about the care she received. Here in New York, Justin Mazzola joins us, deputy director of research for Amnesty International USA, which has launched a campaign calling on ICE to release Sara immediately.

Welcome to all of you. Let’s begin with Fatma Marouf. You are her lawyer. Can you tell us how it’s possible that this woman suffering from a brain tumor is taken out of the hospital in shackles back to the detention center?

FATMA MAROUF: It came as a great shock, I think, to all of us. It happened a day after I had attempted to visit her in the hospital and was refused entry into her room, where she had two guards from the detention center posted at all times. The hospital—

AMY GOODMAN: She had two guards. This woman—

FATMA MAROUF: Yes. She was—

AMY GOODMAN: Had she committed a terrible crime?

FATMA MAROUF: She has no criminal history whatsoever. She was simply fleeing for her life. So, the detention center, when they took her to the hospital, they left two guards, who never left her side. And she spent, as you mentioned, several days there, almost a week, and was denied access to her attorneys, as well as to her family. So she was just alone, terrified, not speaking English, and having just been told that she has a brain tumor.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you find her, Fatma?

FATMA MAROUF: So, after I went to the hospital to try to understand what was happening, and subsequently talked to people within the Department of Homeland Security, as well as within the hospital, we were told that she would be moved to a hospital in Dallas. And then, suddenly, the next day, she was taken back. So, we’re not exactly sure what happened. There’s a couple different discharge notes in her medical records, and it seems that the doctors decided that she was stable all of a sudden that day and released her back to immigration custody. But they had scheduled an appointment for her the following Monday. And we were very concerned about the sort of break in her healthcare, where she was going to have to go back to the detention center, where the care is extremely limited. She’s visited only once a day by a nurse in the detention center. She’s receiving Tylenol for a brain tumor. And we didn’t know how urgently she needed the surgery at that time.

AMY GOODMAN: So she was in the hospital for eight days. No one knew where she was—


AMY GOODMAN: —when she had just been given information that she had a brain tumor?

FATMA MAROUF: That’s right. So, I think when she first got there, she somehow managed to make a call to her mother and told her mother where she was. But then what happened was, ICE put her on what they called a no-contact list, which is something I’ve never heard of before. But it basically keeps the location of the patient a secret, and so she’s not even registered at the hospital. So, when her family tried calling the hospital to ask for her, they would just say, “There’s nobody here by that name.” And so, as somebody locally in the area, I was asked to go and see if she was there, and I found her there. But I was denied access by those guards in the room, who actually, you know, yelled at me and said no one’s supposed to even know she’s here.

AMY GOODMAN: Bryn Esplin, can you talk about your concerns, as a bioethicist, about what has happened to Sara Beltran, a woman who is fleeing violence, fleeing for her life, from El Salvador to the United States?

BRYN ESPLIN: Sure. So, from a bioethics and medical ethics standpoint, there are numerous concerns, some of which we’ve hinted at already. I was made privy to the case and concerned when I heard that she was on a no-contacts list. And I thought that I could prevail upon other hospital services, such as the chaplaincy or social work, to get involved and to offer her some support, because, as you said, she was told that she was suffering from a brain tumor. And the nature of a neurological condition like that, obviously, impacts the ability to comprehend, to have memory. She had symptoms that were aligned with this injury. Not being able to reach out to social support to share in decision-making, to talk about her condition, were extremely problematic. So, I was thinking that that would work. The chaplaincy seemed very receptive to intervening and providing spiritual care. And so, at that point, I sort of recused myself and thought that all was well.

And then, as we mentioned, she was discharged suddenly back to the detention center and told that she would have a follow-up appointment on Monday with a neurosurgeon. And so, at that point, I felt a moral obligation to go and meet with Sara in person at the detention center to get a sense of how she was doing, just from a human being standpoint, but also what she understood about the nature and extent of her condition, what opportunities she had to ask meaningful questions, how I could better support her. Because her English is limited, it was very difficult for her to comprehend all of the nuances of a neurological injury like a pituitary tumor. And so I asked if it would be—if she would feel comfortable with me coming with her to her appointment on Monday, and she enthusiastically agreed. And so, I had her sign a written statement to that effect and also sign a document releasing health information to me.

And so, I showed up early to her appointment and met with the clinical staff, explained who I was, in a patient advocacy capacity, and waited for her to arrive. And I can confirm unequivocally that she arrived not only in handcuffs, but shackled from the hands, waist and feet, brought into the clinic, where all the other people in the visiting room were made privy to this, could see and hear her, and was escorted back to the examination room. And it was only when a clinical staff asked her to sit on the patient examination table, and she struggled to do so in these chains, when the officer was prompted to then remove the shackles.

And so, I sat there with her, held her hand, tried to make the best of a telephonic interpreter that I—that the officers were trying to use to help her fill out this past medical history and forms. That was not working. Both the connection was terrible and the nature of these technical medical jargons was just very difficult to translate, and so the hospital staff insisted that a person come and translate. And so we waited for nearly 45 minutes to an hour for that person to arrive. Sara was still suffering from severe symptoms, laid down, held her head, had to be aroused when the nurse came back into the room. And then we met with the doctor.

And it was just concerning to me that all of these other people, not just the clinical staff and the physician, were made privy to very personal health information. And so, it’s difficult to talk about and be honest about past medical information, such as HIV status, heightened protected health information like psychiatric history. And all of a sudden these strangers are in her room hearing her past medical history, her current prognosis and diagnosis. And I think that that, from an ethical standpoint, really impedes the ability to give accurate information and feel trusted and be able to then ask questions in a meaningful way.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Justin—

BRYN ESPLIN: And so, all of those were concerning.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Justin Mazzola into this conversation, the deputy director of research for Amnesty International USA, which has launched a campaign aimed at winning Sara Beltran’s release from detention. Now, we just had the State—not exactly a State of the Union address, but President Trump’s address to the joint session of Congress, and he keeps on repeating he’s going after the “bad hombres,” he’s going after the criminals that threaten our national security. Can you talk about how Sara Beltran fits into this, who she is, this woman from El Salvador?

JUSTIN MAZZOLA: Right. Well, I think, first of all, you have to remember that she was detained under the Obama administration in their response to the flood of families, and even unaccompanied children, coming up from the Northern Triangle, who are fleeing instability and violence in those countries, including El Salvador, where Sara is from. And the policy of the administration then was deterrence as—detention as deterrence. And so, they wanted to send a message that if you do come, this is what you’re going to face. And Secretary Jeh Johnson was very vocal about that and was criticized for that, but continued the policy. And so, you have asylum seekers, people who are fleeing violence—gang violence, in Sara’s case—also domestic violence, who are coming up here, and as they cross the border and say that they have a fear of going back to their home country, they’re immediately detained pending a determination on their case.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 45 seconds. So, explain what you’re calling for right now.

JUSTIN MAZZOLA: So what we’ve been calling for all along is that ICE should be using their discretion with regards to their parole process to release her, so that she can get adequate medical care and be able to live with her family, who are already here.


JUSTIN MAZZOLA: In New York, to—until the challenge on her claim is completed.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Fatma Marouf, what do expect to come out of this? This is a bond hearing today?

FATMA MAROUF: This is a bond hearing before the Dallas Immigration Court, and we’re hoping that the judge will issue a bond.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you know how much she will have to pay, whether she can do this?

FATMA MAROUF: We don’t know until the judge issues the order. Her family has obviously been working hard to gather money in order to post a bond. And when we know the amount, then they will immediately post it, if they have it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will certainly continue to cover this. People should go to our website at, and we’ll put out word today what happens in that hearing. Fatma Marouf, attorney for Sara Beltran Hernandez; bioethics expert Bryn Esplin; and Justin Mazzola of Amnesty International, thank you so much.

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