Fourteen days after her initial arrest, a young immigrant woman with schizophrenia remains in a Texas jail because of a federal immigration request, even though her family and mental health professionals say that continued detention runs the risk of severe consequences.
Tania Silva, 21, was arrested by police in Austin, Texas, who were responding to a missing person request her family filed after she went missing a day earlier during a mental health emergency - charging her with assaulting the officers for an outburst while she was in handcuffs.
Since her arrest, she has been detained in the Travis County Correctional Facility and cannot be released to receive 24-hour care for her mental health issues because of a Texas law signed earlier this year that forces local police to cooperate with all federal immigration enforcement requests.
“We are worried … because she is sometimes not able to speak or function properly. Her mother told us that they are giving her medicine she used to take in the past but stopped taking because it was causing her damage to her heart,” said Mayra Huerta, an organiser with the Workers Defence Project, which is advocating on Ms Silva’s behalf.
“They are not giving her the correct medicine,” she continued, noting that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — which suspects Ms Silva, a student at a local college studying to become a veterinarian, came to the US illegally from Mexico — has indicated they will interview Ms Silva “any day now”.
Ms Silva’s detention highlights the impact of that Texas law, SB4, which was signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott in March, and limited so-called “sanctuary cities” that refused to comply with some immigration detainer requests from federal authorities. Austin, before the passage of that law, was such a city, and Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez has previously responded to Ms Silva’s case denouncing the law.
“Situations like this are heartbreaking and unfortunately, not uncommon. We deal with this issue on a daily basis in our jails as men and women suffering a mental health crisis are arrested and booked instead of being diverted to treatment facilities. A person’s immigration status compounds the matter. This is one of the reasons I continue to oppose SB4. It denies law enforcement the discretion to do the right thing for the right reason,” Ms Hernandez said last week in a statement.
A spokesperson for the sheriff’s department noted that Ms Silva could post bail at any time — her current detention is technically because of the assault charges — which the family has refused, fearing that Ms Silva would simply be detained by ICE and potentially transported to a facility in a different state.
Witnesses have said that Ms Silva was calm when officers first approached her — and was holding a puppy — and voluntarily sat in the back of a police car. Officers say she scratched and kicked an officer after they took the puppy from her, though records do not indicate that either officer sought medical treatment after arresting the woman.
Her family has said that Ms Silva can generally manage her condition, but occasionally has episodes like the one that led her to go missing, and to forget her name and address.
Greg Hasch, the public policy director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Texas affiliate, said that inadequate treatment for mental health needs is commonplace in detention facilities — and poses grave risks to those struggling.
“Detention can be a difficult situation for a person experiencing alive symptoms of mental illness to be in. It can exacerbate those symptoms and it is not the therapeutic environment that a person needs,” Mr Hasch said.
“This can be a life or death situation,” Mr Hasch continued, noting that jails have a legal obligation to provide care to detained individuals, but that it is often inadequate. “People can sort of experience an exacerbation of symptoms, whether medical or mental health, and sometimes their lives are threatened”.
A spokesperson for ICE confirmed that a detainer request has been placed on Ms Silva, but refused to comment further on the case.
The spokesperson said that “ICE is committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency’s custody, including providing access to necessary and appropriate medical care”.
The agency spends more than $250m a year on healthcare services for detainees, the spokesperson said.
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