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Martin Vargas had been dealing with a COVID-19 infection and other health problems when immigration officials told his attorney they were considering releasing him from the Adelanto Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing center.

Weeks went by before Margaret Hellerstein found out that her client had indeed been released, but no one notified her or told her where he went. Worried he was living on the street, she filed a missing persons report. Soon after, she found out that Vargas had suffered a stroke on March 3 and died at a hospital three days after his March 5 release.

“I had been saying since last April he’s going to die in there. His death is absolutely on their hands,” Hellerstein told The Times in an interview. “They covered it up and released him so they would not have to answer for it. I should not have had to call the coroner to find out my client died a week before.”

The case raises questions about whether immigration officials are undercounting detainee deaths during the pandemic by releasing people just before they die, said Jessica Karp Bansal, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which sued to secure the release of detainees to facilitate social distancing in the facility.

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