A year ago, Luis Alberto Mendez was an able-bodied immigrant from Mexico who worked as a carpenter. He had suffered from depression, but his lawyer said he had gotten the symptoms under control with medication.
He was also undocumented.
Today, Mendez is a quadriplegic who is confined to his brother’s home in San Jose. He needs constant care and has no money.
He blames Sacramento County and the U.S. government, and he’s suing them both.
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Mendez, 37, is a native of Mexico who does not dispute that he was in the United States illegally in 2016. When agents detained him, he willingly signed an order agreeing to immediate deportation, his lawyer said. If the government had just sent him home then, he contends, he would not be paralyzed.
Instead, he was taken to the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove. There, his lawsuit claims, jailers ignored his pleas for access to medical care. He eventually attempted to kill himself by jumping off a second-story balcony on the prison grounds, his lawyer said.
The fall didn’t kill him, but it left him a quadriplegic in need of a lifetime of medical care. His lawsuit accuses the U.S. government and Sacramento County of negligence, Fresno attorney Douglas Gordon said Friday.
“He is at a little home in the San Jose area being tended to by his family,” said Gordon, who filed the lawsuit Thursday in federal court in Sacramento. “He’s quadriplegic. He has no money.”
The circumstances that led to Mendez being detained remain unclear.
Gordon, his lawyer, notes that federal policy at that time would have directed immigration agents to leave him alone because he had no felony convictions or criminal ties that would have led them to deport him.
Nonetheless, ICE agents set up shop outside his San Jose home in August 2016 waiting for him to appear.
“They had him on some sort of list, had information on where he lived,” Gordon said. “They waited for him to come out of his house, and when he came out on his bicycle riding to work they detained him.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman James Schwab said the agency would not comment on pending litigation.
But Gordon maintains that federal policy at the time, under the Obama administration, required that ICE agents ignore his presence in the country and focus instead on dangerous criminals or gang members.
“The worst crime that ICE has on him was a 2015 assault that was dismissed as misdemeanor,” Gordon said. “He was not supposed to be targeted.”
When Mendez was apprehended by ICE for removal on Aug. 15, 2016, the agency was working under the Morton Memo, authorized by President Obama in March 2011.
That memo states that ICE’s top priority is “aliens who pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety.”
Immigrants convicted of crimes, particularly violent criminals, felons, repeat offenders and members of organized crime, all were singled out as priorities.
Those with mental health issues, like Mendez, were not supposed to be targeted. “Absent extraordinary circumstances or requirements of mandatory detention, field office directors should not expend detention resources on aliens who are known to be suffering from serious physical or mental illness,” the memo states.
Mendez apparently was targeted despite that edict, and appeared before a deportation officer on Aug. 15, 2016. He signed a voluntary deportation order, which typically would have resulted in him being flown home to Mexico.
Instead, for reasons that have yet to be explained, Mendez was given a notice to appear before an immigration judge in the future. He was shipped off to the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, where federal officials contract with the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department to hold ICE detainees.
Once there, the suit states, Mendez began asking for help for his psychiatric needs, which included access to anti-psychotic drugs to deal with a schizophrenia diagnosis, his attorney said.
Mendez had been suffering from depression before he was detained, and tried to cut himself on his neck in February 2016 and again in June 2016, Gordon said. He subsequently was prescribed anti-psychotic medications and he “was well maintained and doing fine,” Gordon said.
“Then, he was detained,” Gordon said, and authorities denied him access to such medications.
Sheriff’s Department spokesman Sgt. Shaun Hampton declined to comment on the suit Friday, saying county officials had not yet seen it.
The lawsuit says that because Mendez was denied “reasonable care,” he attempted to kill himself by jumping off “an elevated structure” and fell, hitting his head and suffering spinal cord injuries, a traumatic brain injury and other damage.
The injuries will require a lifetime of medical care, his attorney said, and his family has had difficulty caring for him.
“They’ve struggled to get him on Medi-Cal,” Gordon said. “He has nobody to care for him except his brother and sister, who work. It’s a real struggle for the family.”