Texas police refuse to take immigrant woman with schizophrenia to hospital after ICE request

Officials in Texas are refusing to release a young immigrant woman from jail to be treated at a hospital, in spite of warnings from her family and advocates that she is in desperate need of medical care to treat an episode of schizophrenia that caused her to go missing last week.

Tania Silva was initially arrested hours after her family filed a missing persons report, saying they had not seen their 21-year-old family member since she was dropped off for classes the day before at an Austin community college where she is studying to become a veterinarian.

Since then, she has been held in the Travis County Correctional Facility with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hold, which is a request from federal authorities who are seeking to detain a suspected illegal immigrant.

“Tania is a student, she has been helping the community. She was a volunteer at the high school where she went – she went back to volunteer,” Pamela Silva, her younger sister, told The Independent, describing the woman whom Austin Police have charged with assaulting an officer on a Thursday morning in an Austin residential neighbourhood. 

“When she’s not ill, when she’s not having a mental crisis, she’s a normal person,” she continued. “People see her and know she is a normal person. She’s really calm. Everyone who knows her knows that.”

The details surrounding her case and current detention underline the impact of state legislation SB4, which was signed into law earlier this year and banned local governments and law enforcement agencies in Texas from establishing “sanctuary cities” where police have discretion to ignore detainer requests from federal immigration authorities and release immigrants back into their communities.

Ms Silva, who was born in Mexico but has lived in the US for years, was first taken into police custody nearly a week-and-a-half-ago after she was discovered on the front lawn of an Austin woman’s home, holding a puppy.

That woman, who spoke to The Independent on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions at her place of work, said that the young woman she met that day was clearly in need of help, but that she was able to calm her down and bring her into her house for a glass of water. She said she then called for emergency medical services (EMS) to help Ms Silva.

While they waited, the woman said that she was able to get little information out of the young woman in front of her – she had forgotten her name, and where she lived – but the puppy seemed to be helping her to relax. 

But, instead of EMS arriving, the woman said a police car showed up in front of her house, and two officers approached the house and repeatedly reassured the woman and Ms Silva that they were here to take care of her, and that they had showed up in response to a missing persons report that had been filed earlier in the day. An EMS vehicle showed up at one point, but the witness said police told them that they had the situation under control.

The interaction started peacefully but went sour when the officers took the puppy away from Ms Silva. After they handcuffed her and took the dog, a heavily redacted police report obtained by The Independent says that she kicked one officer, and then dug her nails into an officer.

The woman who had called EMS – who was not mentioned in the portions of the police statement obtained – said she was not tending to the situation at this time, but that her attention was drawn back to the girl when she heard Ms Silva screaming, and then found her on the ground with her hands and feet bound.

“As I told the police officer, I said, ‘if you were going to take the puppy away why didn’t you tell me?’” the woman said. “I held the puppy for a few minutes in the midst of my conversation with the young lady.”

“The young lady did not become aggressive until they took the puppy away from her,” she said.

A spokesperson for the Austin Police Department defended the actions of the officers in arresting the woman, and said during a press conference that they followed protocol and attempted to deescalate the situation before the aggression lead to the arrest.

The initial responding officer, a man, had even gone out of his way to ensure that a female officer responded to the scene with him, since they had received reports that the Ms Silva had expressed a distrust for men, the spokesperson said. 

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Campaigners said the situation highlighted how dangerous arrests can be for an immigrant in Texas, especially following the passage of SB4.

“This is sort of the intersection of … very broken systems. We have a criminal justice system that doesn’t know how to deal with mental health. We have the immigration system, which is further complicating this case,” said Emily Timm with the Worker’s Defense Action Fund.

“If it were not for the ICE hold she would be able to get out and get into in patient medical care, have access to her family who hasn’t seen her since she was arrested. To have that support to hopefully get better,” she continued.

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In a statement, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez said that their detention centre does have contracted psychiatrists, but that the circumstances surrounding Ms Silva’s case illustrates why Texas’ SB4 creates barriers for law enforcement agencies keen on helping inmates in their jails.

“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,” Ms Hernandez said.

“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.”

An ICE official confirmed that the agency had requested that Ms Silva be detained, but did not comment on the specifics of the case.

Since Ms Silva’s detention, her sister said that she and her other family members have not been able to see her, even though they believe that could help her with her medical condition.

To try and convince ICE to lift the hold – or at least to have Ms Silva moved into facilities with 24-hour medical care – they organised a rally on Tuesday alongside the advocacy group Workers Defense Project.

It is unclear if, or when, those calls might be heeded, but Pamela Silva says that even the charges she faced from the officers are completely out of character for her sister. She said she would only have done something like that if she were going through a mental health emergency.

“She loves animals. She loves human beings,” she said. “She’s a vegetarian, she’s trying to be vegan.

“She wouldn’t even kill a fly.”

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