Video: A Case of Mistaken Identity, Then the Death of an ICE Detainee


Carlos Mejia-Bonilla was starting his day at work at a construction site on Long Island when he was arrested by immigration officers in an alleged case of mistaken identity.

He told authorities they had the wrong person, but he was locked up at the Hudson County Correctional Facility anyway on April 1 because he was in the country illegally.

Within 10 weeks, he was dead.

Federal immigration officials said in a release that the 47-year-old Mejia-Bonilla “died of complications of a previous medical condition.”

His family believes the lack of care may have led to his death.

While in jail, Mejia-Bonilla, who had diabetes, anemia and cirrhosis of the liver, told his family he was worried about his health and that he wasn’t receiving all the medication he needed. In a phone call to his family shortly before his death, he told them he was going to file a complaint, said Manuel Portela, an attorney representing the family.

On June 8, Mejia-Bonilla’s family was waiting in court for him to appear at his bond hearing, but he never showed. They tracked down a jail officer and learned he had been taken to Jersey City Medical Center.

Though they were forbidden to enter his room at the hospital because he was a federal detainee, his brother got a glimpse of him through a doorway. The ailing man appeared semi-conscious or sedated and unable to speak, Portela said.

He died on June 10.

The family is awaiting the results of his autopsy.

“We are going to hold them accountable for lack of proper medical care if the autopsy supports that,” Portela said. “Not only for Rolando Meza, but for other inmates that are complaining about lack of proper medical attention as well as overall conditions at the facility.”

Portela believes Mejia-Bonilla shouldn’t have been in the jail in the first place.

A native of El Salvador, he had been living in this country since 1993, Portela said. For many years, Mejia-Bonilla had been using the name Rolando Meza Espinoza, who was supposedly an immigrant from Honduras. When he was arrested, immigration enforcement officers were trying to find a different man by that same name who was supposed to be deported in 2005, Portela said.

The two Espinozas looked different — one is taller and darker — and their fingerprints don’t match, Portela said. But the Espinoza they did find was also here illegally. Mejia-Bonilla, aka Espinoza, once had protected status, which is given to immigrants who faced violence if they returned to their home country. But he lost it in 2015 because he had been convicted of driving while intoxicated in 2009 and aggravated driving while intoxicated in 2014 on Long Island, according to ICE officials.

In previous years, immigration officers would have likely let him go because they arrested only those they were specifically looking for. Under new guidance from the Trump administration, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have been given leeway to arrest any undocumented immigrants they encounter.

Portela said ICE officers knew they had the wrong person, but that “they did a background check and realized they had enough to hold him.”

Mejia-Bonilla lived with Darleny Rivera, their 8-year-old daughter and two step-daughters ages 10 and 12.

After his arrest, Rivera went to work at a candy packaging factory to support the family, and she has relied on her church, family and friends to watch her children. Mejia-Bonilla had two other children — ages 17 and 21 — who live in the U.S. and a 25-year-old son in El Salvador.

“His wife is devastated, in shock,” Portela said. “She is very worried about her future with three children who are very young.”