Comatose Border Patrol Victim Spared Deportation, Removal from St. Joseph's (For Now)

Jose Gutierrez, who is in a vegetative state, with part of his skull removed
Jose Gutierrez, who is in a vegetative state, with part of his skull removed

Saint Joseph is traditionally the patron saint of workers and immigrants. The latter is because the father of Jesus was forced to flee to Egypt to save the Christ child from Herod the Great's wrath. Once King Herod was dead, Joseph moved his family back to Israel, settling in Nazareth.

There is a large statue of St. Joseph outside of his namesake hospital in Phoenix, which was founded in 1895 by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, but St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center does not always pity the poor immigrant as it should.

This morning, Shena Wilson, the wife of Jose Gutierrez Guzman, kept watch over her husband in the hospital's intensive care unit, under the guard of two U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers. Not that Gutierrez was in any condition to escape their clutches.

At that time, Gutierrez was, for reasons unknown, not listed as a patient in St. Joseph's directory. Nevertheless, he lay comatose with part of his skull removed. He sustained Taser marks, a broken tooth, and a severe head injury after his run in with the Border Patrol near the San Luis, Arizona port of entry. He also has two black eyes.

No wonder CBP wanted to boot him from the country, stat.

According to New Times' sister paper LA Weekly, the CBP has stated that "the man struck his head on the ground during the incident." That's a lot of damage from a trip and fall. Unless, gravity received a little help.

Gutierrez had lived in the United States since he was nine, Wilson told me.

He was deported this past March 21, although he was a resident of Los Angeles, held a steady job as a film engineer, and fronted for LZ10, which the LA Weekly describes as a "popular Spanish-rock band." Wilson told me Gutierrez was desperate to get back to the United States, as Mexico is not his home and as his daughter was in the hospital.

But Gutierrez did not make it back to Los Angeles. After receiving substantial injuries while in CBP custody, he was hospitalized. Wilson's lawyer, Brian Lerner, told me the Border Patrol and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security wanted to again deport Gutierrez. But Lerner obtained a stay from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, blocking this.

When I spoke with him, Lerner informed me that St. Joseph's wanted to remove Gutierrez in his vegetative state to Mexico, and that he was seeking further relief from the Ninth Circuit to prevent such action.

"Their words were that they were going to `transfer' him back to Mexico," Lerner said of his discussions with the hospital.

St. Joseph's spokeswoman Carmelle Malkovich e-mailed me the following statement after I called her for comment:

The situation related to our patient Jose Gutierrez continues to be very fluid. Earlier today we learned that the federal government will not be prosecuting Mr. Gutierrez, and he is no longer in their custody. Homeland Security personnel have left the hospital and he is now here as a regular patient.

This means that the federal authorities are no longer directing his location and gives us very different options for transitioning the patient to serve his long term care needs.

Because of this change, any plans to transfer the patient anywhere today have been cancelled.

We will continue to focus on the safety of the patient as he recovers. St. Joseph's is not licensed to administer long term medical care. We will work with his family to transition him to the next level of care. Mr. Gutierrez's condition has improved and he no longer needs acute care, which is the only type of care we are licensed to provide.

No other details have been confirmed at this time. 

Suzanne Pfister, VP of External Affairs with St. Joe's, denied that the hospital wanted to remove Gutierrez on its own, and that it had just been following the lead of the CBP.

Lerner disputed this, stating that St. Joe's "backed down." He found Pfister's characterization "a little disingenuous."

He said that he'd been preparing to ask the Ninth Circuit to step in once more and halt any action by the hospital when he received word that St. Joe's had relented.

Lerner related that Gutierrez would likely be transferred to a California facility next week sometime.

He warned that if St. Joe's attempted to remove Gutierrez to Mexico, "I can get to the Ninth Circuit very quickly."

St. Joseph's is a not-for-profit facility. Malkovich at one point described it to me as "private." It's exempt from corporate taxes, and it receives untold millions in federal grants and Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements.

Nevertheless, St. Joe's has been known to remove from the U.S. severely ill folks who happen to be undocumented. Back in 2007, I wrote about the death of Joe Arvisu, a North High School student with leukemia who suffered a head injury, became a patient at St. Joe's and was ultimately shipped back to a hospital in Mexico, where he died.

Lerner believes St. Joe's would have put Gutierrez in an ambulance headed for Mexico, despite Gutierrez being in a coma, had he and Wilson not put up a fight.

He promised that "a lawsuit will go forward" on the matter once Gutierrez is back in California and his condition is stable.

CBP did not return repeated calls for comment. Can't say that I blame them. This was turning into a public relations disaster for both CBP and St. Joe's.

Local pro-immigrant advocacy group Puente deserves credit for alerting the local media and for protesting St. Joe's last night and this morning. Such activism and media scrutiny doesn't hurt. In this case, it likely helped, particularly in regard to St. Joe's actions.


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