When Rolando Meza Espinoza’s family learned he was admitted to the Jersey City Medical Center in early June, his mother, brother, girlfriend, and cousin left their homes near Brentwood, Long Island, and rushed to make the roughly 70-mile trek to the hospital.
Meza Espinoza’s family knew something was wrong when he didn’t show up to a bail hearing earlier that day. His attorney and family didn’t get any answers from the Hudson County Correctional Facility, where he was detained after being arrested by immigration agents two months earlier.
So the family and his attorney, Manuel Portela, went into “investigation” mode trying to find Meza Espinoza, making a flurry of phone calls. Eventually, Portela told Splinter, ICE informed the family that Meza Espinoza was in the hospital.
Before being incarcerated, Meza Espinoza was diagnosed with diabetes, anemia, and cirrhosis of the liver, according to Portela. He had complained to his mother and daughters that he was not getting the medicine he needed at the jail. So when his family learned he was in the hospital, they assumed he was finally getting the care he needed. Little did they know, Meza Espinoza was in the intensive care unit. According to ICE, he was admitted to the ICU for gastrointestinal bleeding.
As the family walked toward his room, they could see his body was connected to several machines and devices.
“He looked like he was in his death throes,” Meza Espinoza’s brother told Splinter. (He declined multiple requests for his name, citing concerns about “privacy and respect” for his brother.)
“My body’s instinct told me to walk towards my brother,” Meza Espinoza’s brother continued, speaking in Spanish. But Meza Espinoza’s brother said immigration officers stopped him before he could enter the room. He said officers told him that if the family wanted to see his brother, they had to contact ICE and request permission.
According to James Kennelly, a spokesman for Hudson County, visitors who want to see inmates in the hospital who are in the custody of the Hudson County Correctional Facility must first get the warden’s approval—except when an inmate at Hudson is admitted to the ICU. In that case, Kennelly said, “They are told to simply present ID at the hospital so that they may be admitted to the ICU. Essentially the approval is instantaneous with the family notification.”
But Meza Espinoza wasn’t technically a county inmate. ICE leased the bed where Meza Espinoza slept for two months from Hudson County, but he was still in the custody of federal immigration officials. Therefore, Kennelly told Splinter, immigration officials controlled who could visit him in the hospital.
“Requests by family members to visit ICE detainees who have been hospitalized are permitted but must be approved in advance with ICE and the appropriate consulate,” ICE told Splinter. The agency did not respond to multiple calls and emails requesting additional details about visitation approvals and how long family members have to wait to be granted a visit with their loved ones in the hospital.
Splinter also reviewed ICE’s detention standards that outline the policies and procedures that Hudson County is expected to follow in order to “to improve safety, security and conditions of confinement for detainees.” The visitation guidelines make no mention of how to handle visitations when a detainee in ICE custody is hospitalized.
The Consulate General of El Salvador in New Jersey, who would have handled Meza Espinoza’s case, did not respond to requests for comment. We’ll update this story if we hear back.
Meza Espinoza’s brother said he got into a heated argument with the officers who wouldn’t allow the family inside the hospital room. The agents were rude and aggressive, he said.
They pleaded with the officers to let them see their gravely ill family member for another five minutes. Meza Espinoza’s brother said that at one point he told the officers, “If you want to arrest me, then arrest me, but I want to see my brother.”
Ultimately, the family was forced to leave without even being allowed to look through the window into the room. The next day, on Saturday, June 10, Rolando Meza Espinoza was pronounced dead.
ICE said Meza Espinoza “succumbed to complications” from gastrointestinal bleeding and a previous medical condition. He was 43.
He left behind his long-term girlfriend, Darleny Rivera, a daughter and two stepchildren, as well as three children from a prior relationship.
“I can’t describe the desperation I felt wanting to be next to him and not being able to,” Meza Espinoza’s brother said. “All we wanted was to be next to him in those last minutes.”
ICE officials refused to comment on allegations of a verbal confrontation between the officers and Meza Espinoza’s family. “We won’t comment on pending/possible litigation or allegations against a facility,” ICE said in an email to Splinter.
Hudson County has appointed an independent panel currently investigating whether Meza Espinoza “received all appropriate medical care entitled to him while detained.”
Rolando Meza Espinoza was the breadwinner of the household, providing for his longtime girlfriend, an eight-year-old daughter, and two step-daughters, ages 12 and 10.
“His wife stayed at home taking care of kids,” Meza Espinoza’s brother said. “Now they have to pay for rent, they have to pay for food, and they don’t have money for all that.”
Portela, the family’s attorney, has launched a GoFundMe page to help the family with expenses. They are still considering legal action against Hudson County for inadequate medical care during Meza Espinoza’s detention and against ICE for unlawful arrest and detention for over two months. But they all believe that if he had been released from detention earlier, he might still be alive today.
“Had he been released, he might have received the proper medical care that he desperately needed,” Portela said.
Rolando Meza Espinoza was the 10th person to die in ICE custody this fiscal year. You can read about the other immigrants who lost their lives here: “When Your Obituary Is Written by ICE: A List of ICE In-Custody Deaths in 2017.”
ICE spokeswoman Rachael Yong Yow said Meza Espinoza entered the country illegally and was arrested on April 1, 2017 “as part of everyday, targeted enforcement operations.” He was detained at a construction site in Brentwood, NJ where he worked, according to Portela, his attorney. After spending two months in detention at the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny, NJ, he was admitted to the hospital on June 8, 2017.
But when ICE released a statement about Meza Espinoza’s death, Portela said he realized the immigration enforcement agency might have set out to arrest someone else entirely: The ICE statement identified the detainee who died in custody as Carlos Mejia-Bonilla, a native of El Salvador.
This is where it gets more complicated.
Portela says his client identified himself as Carlos Mejia-Bonilla when he entered the country from Honduras in 1999, but later changed his name to Rolando Meza Espinoza when he obtained temporary protected status, or TPS, which is granted to immigrants in the United States who cannot return to the country where they were born due to civil unrest or natural disasters.
The attorney says ICE was looking for an individual with a 2005 deportation order when they arrested his client. But Meza Espinoza already had protected status in 2005, which would have shielded him from deportation. His TPS was not renewed in 2015 due to two charges of driving while intoxicated.
Portela says a visual description and fingerprints didn’t match up, either.
ICE identifies Portela’s client as Bonilla-Mejia from El Salvador—but acknowledges he was also known as Rolando Meza Espinoza. The name change and shifting origin story has led to conflicting and confused news coverage following his death:
- The New York Daily News identified him as Meza, 35, from Honduras.
- A local New Jersey paper, The Bergen Record, identified him as Carlos Mejia-Bonilla, 44, from El Salvador.
- A Bergen Record story published two weeks earlier by the same reporter identified him as Rolando Meza Espinoza, 47.
Portela said he’s representing the family of Rolando Meza. When asked why his client was using different names, he said, “Only [Meza Espinoza] can answer that question.”
“When they finally acknowledged they had the wrong Rolando Meza, instead of releasing him, they decided they were going to hold him,” Portela said. “This is a case of unlawful arrest and detention and mistaken identity.”
ICE declined to comment further, citing possible pending litigation.
Immigration detainees are incarcerated in a variety of confinement institutions, including ICE-owned-and-operated facilities, private for-profit detention centers, and at city, county, and state prisons across the country. Last year, about 25 percent of the 40,000 daily average ICE population was detained in local jails, according to the Department of Homeland Security. ICE told Splinter most of these local facilities were county jails, like the Hudson County Correctional Facility.
The jail in Hudson County, where Meza Espinoza was detained, contracts with the federal government to hold an estimated 491 immigration detainees per day, according to ICE records. ICE pays the county $110 per detainee per day, according to contracts reviewed by Splinter.
Immigrant rights advocates have called on the New Jersey attorney general to investigate the Hudson County Correctional Facility and CFG Health Systems LLC, the private company that provides medical services to the jail.
In May 2016, two immigrant rights groups filed a federal civil rights complaint on behalf of 61 women and men in ICE custody at the Kearny, NJ, facility, alleging a pattern of substandard medical care.
In response to the civil rights complaint filed on behalf of the detainees, Hudson County appointed a four-member, independent investigatory panel chaired by a retired superior court judge, two doctors, and a malpractice attorney who has sued the county in the past.
“The report issued by the panel after the completion of their investigation did not substantiate the advocates’ charges that detainees were deprived of adequate medical care,” Kennelly, the Hudson County spokesman, told Splinter.
Six weeks after Meza Espinoza was pronounced dead, a 48-year-old woman died inside the Hudson County jail’s infirmary. Jennifer Towle entered the jail to serve a 180-day sentence for driving while intoxicated. Local news outlets reported Towle was “nearing the end of her sentence and had spent more than half of her stay in an infirmary cell.”
Kennelly said “in the wake of Mr. Meza’s death in June 2017, Hudson County authorized the creation of a permanent, paid professional medical monitor to work independently from the Corrections & Rehabilitation Center’s Medical Director and staff.” NorthJersey.com reported two members of the jail’s medical staff have since been dismissed.