Passers-by view portraits of migrants who have died in their quests to live in the United States. Photo by Chris Stone

As Día de los Muertos approaches Nov. 2, Martha Sullivan wants to ensure that one group is not forgotten – people who have died in ICE custody.

So she organized a Day of the Dead memorial on Broadway Avenue in front of federal courthouses downtown during Wednesday’s lunch hour for people to see as they passed by.

The paintings bear images of migrants with flowers in front of them.

“I thought this was a timely time to bring them back out. Besides them being very impactful art, they have such a powerful message,” said Sullivan, a longtime advocate for the “unsheltered” in San Diego.

The “them” that Sullivan references are portraits by artist Antonia Davis of migrants, many of them children, who passed away while detained by the U.S. Border Patrol or living in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center.

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While standing beside the portraits, Sullivan, a co-founder of Women Occupy San Diego and Grassroots Oasis in Old Town, pointed to the recent findings that 545 children who were separated from their parents under the Trump Administration immigration policy have not been united with their parents.

She also mentioned claims that people in detention centers have reported incidents to police, but have not been investigated.

“Creating these portraits, mainly of children who have died in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol or ICE, has been a heartrending endeavor,” artist Davis said in a statement.

“After painting the portrait of Claudia Patricia (Gómez González), I read about the deaths of young children in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol or ICE,” Davis said. “I began painting their portraits, but I had to stop my work because I was asked to temporarily house an asylum-seeking mother and her two young children who had just been released from detention.”
The artist added: “Together we must stop this inhumanity.”

CNN reported last month that 21 people have died in ICE custody in the fiscal year ending July 30, nearly double the deaths in fiscal 2019.

Immigrant rights advocates say the deaths are a sign of deteriorating conditions, serious problems with medical care and ICE’s flawed approach to handling the pandemic, according to the CNN report.

ICE said it takes the health and safety of detainees seriously — and maintains that deaths in its custody are “exceedingly rare.”

Among the portraits on display in front of the federal courthouses were of:

  • Nebane Abienwi, of Cameroon, a 37-year-old father of six who fled his embattled country last year. Abienwi died after suffering a “medical emergency” while being detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center.
  • Mariee Juarez, a 19-month-old girl who accompanied her mother from Guatemala and died weeks after being released from custody.
  • And Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, 25, and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, who drowned while trying to cross from Mexico into Texas.

Their fate was captured in a photograph of father and daughter lying face down in the muddy waters of the Rio Grande River.

Sullivan said the portrait of Gómez González inspired her to set out the memorial downtown.

Gómez González, 20, of Guatemala was shot in the head by a border patrol agent in Rio Bravo, Texas, just minutes after crossing the border in 2018, according to news reports.

“It made me feel like this is something else we need to remember,” Sullivan said. “This isn’t Día de los Muertos because it isn’t celebrating their lives. We’re drawing attention to the tragedy of their deaths.”