Second trans woman dies in ICE custody

A transwoman from El Salvador who was being held by U.S. immigration authorities died June 1 — the first day of Pride month, and four days after she was released from custody and taken to a hospital.

After being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for seven weeks, Johana Medina Leon, 25, died at the Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso, Texas. Medina Leon was seeking asylum in the U.S.

Medina Leon had repeatedly pleaded for medical help and was held in poor conditions, advocates who had contact with her and others at the privately run New Mexico detention center told news media.

Medina Leon arrived at U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Paso Del Norte port of entry in El Paso on April 11. She was told at that time that she was not female, that she was male, and was processed for “expedited removal” when she applied for admission to enter the U.S. That is a deportation process that allows an immigration official to deport an undocumented person without a hearing before a judge.

On April 14, Medina Leon was transferred to Otero County Processing Center, a private detention facility for ICE detainees. On May 18, she received a positive credible fear finding — a crucial first step in the asylum process — and was given a notice to appear before an immigration judge on May 22. On May 28, ICE said it had reviewed her case and released her from its detention center on parole.

Medina Leon had asked to be tested for HIV and received a positive result. The same day as her release, Medina Leon said she was experiencing chest pain and was taken to the hospital.

“This is yet another unfortunate example of an alien who enters the United States with an untreated, unscreened medical condition,” said Corey Price, field office director for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations in El Paso. “Many of these aliens attempt to enter the United States with untreated or unknown diseases, which are not diagnosed until they are examined while in detention.”

O.J. Pitaya, an advocate with Diversidad Sin Fronteras, an LGBT human-rights organization, said Medina Leon waited nearly three months in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, for the opportunity to request asylum from the U.S. at an official border crossing. 

When she presented herself to Border Patrol agents, Pitaya said, Medina Leon was told “she was not trans” and that “she was a man.”

Medina Leon was a certified nurse in El Salvador, but wasn’t able to practice because she was living openly as a transwoman, Pitaya said.

“Her dream was to come to the U.S. to get certified and make a living healing people,” Pitaya wrote in a Facebook post.

From April 11 to about May 23, however, her health had deteriorated, Pitaya said. On multiple occasions, she told staff at the Otero County Processing Center that “she needed a [IV] solution, that she could do it herself but she just needed the medication.”

Allegra Love, executive director of the Sante Fe Dreamers Project, a nonprofit that provides free legal service to immigrants, told NBC News that Medina Leon did nothing “illegal” when she fled to the U.S. following Department of Homeland Security protocol.

“She didn’t violate a single law coming to the U.S. to ask for political asylum,” Love said. “I give an interview a week about the medical conditions for transwomen,” which she described as “alarming and dangerous.”

Medina Leon’s death comes mere days after the one-year anniversary of the death of Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez, a transwoman who traveled to the U.S. in a migrant caravan and died in ICE custody. A New Mexico medical investigator’s autopsy found that the 33-year-old died from complications of AIDS.

In December 2018, Democratic senators demanded that immigration authorities release documents on Hernández’s case, arguing that officials had violated congressional reporting requirements by not making the documents public.

Congress requires ICE to report the death of any migrant in its custody within 30 days and make public a final report within 60 days. Because Medina Leon was released from ICE custody the same day she was sent to the hospital, her death was not considered in-custody.

There has been widespread concern from civil-rights groups over the status of LGBTQ people held in ICE custody. In a letter sent to ICE in March, the ACLU and others demanded a meeting to discuss launching an investigation into “rampant sexual harassment, medical neglect and retaliation against transgender women, lesbians and gay men” at the Otero County Processing Center, where Medina Leon was held.

The letter said conditions for LGBTQ immigrants were “unconscionable” and “ICE’s practices at Otero have created an unsafe environment” for the LGBTQ detainees there.

“When the women and men have submitted requests for medical care, including mental-health care, they report that Otero takes days, if not weeks, to respond to them,” the ACLU of New Mexico, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center and the Santa Fe Dreamers Project wrote in the letter. 

Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, said in a statement the group is “devastated and outraged, but not surprised” by the news of Medina Leon’s death.

Referring to the deaths of both transwomen, Hayashi wrote, “These deaths are a direct result of U.S. government policy, and will continue unless we force dramatic change.”

U.S. Reps. Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Veronica Escobar (D-TX) expressed sorrow over Medina Leon’s death. Both emphasized the need for better treatment of migrants in U.S. custody, particularly those in vulnerable populations.

“There is no reason for this to happen because it’s foreseeable,” Haaland told NBC News. “There have already been a lot of deaths.”

Haaland also said she’s concerned that ICE isn’t equipped to manage the healthcare and medical needs of detainees.

Escobar said ICE’s statement about Medina Leon’s death was “outrageous,” and that ICE “tried in some respects to blame the victim for her own death” and “wash its hands” of responsibility for Medina Leon’s well-being.

“There is a growing number of people arriving at our doorstep seeking asylum, and the response by the U.S. government has not just been inadequate, but in many cases cruel,” Escobar said. “It feels like this administration is intent on using cruelty as a deterrence, and vulnerable populations, people like Johana and the children who have died in custody, are especially at risk.”

The Transgender Law Center filed a lawsuit May 31 against the DHS and ICE “for illegally withholding information” about Hernández’s death. 

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.