Lawsuit Leads to Release of Immigrant
Thursday, July 3, 2008
A South Korean immigrant who was repeatedly denied timely medical care while in the immigration detention system was released from an Arizona jail yesterday.
Federal immigration officials released Yong Sun Harvill, 52, as part of a settlement of a federal lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The suit, filed in June, alleged that ICE's top administrator and a half-dozen other officials "deny basic human needs, inflict unnecessary pain and suffering and put Mrs. Harvill at substantial risk of physical injury, illness and premature death."
The government insists she received proper care.
In May, The Washington Post documented Harvill's struggle to get treatment as part of a series of articles about poor medical care for detained immigrants around the country. The series was based on interviews and thousands of internal government records.
Harvill, a legal U.S. resident and the wife of an American citizen, came to the United States as a young Army bride 32 years ago, but never applied for citizenship. Immigration officials were trying to deport her under a provision that allows for the removal of non-citizens who have been convicted of certain crimes -- in her case, buying stolen jewelry more than a decade ago.
Under the terms of the settlement, Harvill, in exchange for her release, agreed to drop her suit against ICE, including any future claims if it turns out that her care in the jail contributed to deteriorating health. Harvill will be allowed to remain in the United States for at least two years or until her remaining immigration case is resolved, whichever is later. Then, ICE could decide to deport her or to defer her removal so that she may continue her medical care.
Harvill was flown to Miami yesterday after her release from the Pinal County Jail southeast of Phoenix. She will live with her family outside Tampa.
"Right now my stomach feels queasy," Harvill said in a telephone interview. "I'm both worried and excited about the whole thing. All I want to do is check into the hospital. There's something happening to me that's not normal."
ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said the settlement with Harvill "contains no admission of any liability whatsoever," and she denied that Harvill was ever refused medical care.
"Indeed, a careful review of Ms. Harvill's medical records reveals that she consistently received a high level of medical care for myriad pre-existing ailments while she was in ICE custody," Nantel said in an e-mail. "Any claim to the contrary is simply not borne out by the records."
Harvill's medical problems are serious and complex: repeated episodes of soft-tissue cancer over three decades, a painfully swollen leg damaged by past radiation treatments, hepatitis, psychiatric problems and -- recently -- a lump growing below her left knee that she was unable for months to persuade her jailers to allow her to get tested.
ICE took Harvill into custody in Florida in March 2007 as she finished a 13-month prison sentence on a drug-possession charge. She was held at Palm Beach County Jail, but then was transferred to a federal detention compound in Arizona. ICE officials told her lawyers she would get better medical care there, but several weeks later, she was moved to Pinal County Jail, one of many local and county jails around the country that are paid by ICE to house immigration detainees.
The jail does not have a full-time doctor on its staff, so Harvill was taken repeatedly to a public hospital more than an hour away in Phoenix, where she often did not receive proper care, her case documents show.
After The Post article, Harvill's case received attention from federal officials, outside advocates and the South Korean Consulate in Los Angeles. Harvill's health, meanwhile, continued to deteriorate.
In late May, she was taken to Maricopa Medical Center for surgery that, four months earlier, she had been told she needed to remove uterine polyps. A doctor found a suspicious spot and ordered a biopsy, but Harvill still is not certain of the results. She has developed hearing loss in her one, good ear.
In her final days in custody, Harvill became lightheaded, briefly blacking out, and was taken to Maricopa's emergency room. She was taken back to the emergency room again last week after becoming dizzy.