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Transgender woman dies after being released by ICE

Johana Medina Leon

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The death of a transgender woman four days after she was released from a New Mexico Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center has led to an outcry from immigrant advocates.

Johana Medina Leon, a 25-year-old nurse from El Salvador, died in an El Paso hospital Saturday. She was transported from the Otero County Processing Center on Tuesday after complaining of chest pains and had asked for an HIV test, which was positive, according to ICE.

The migrant from El Salvador asked for asylum at an official port of entry in El Paso on April 11 and was locked up until a few days before her death on June 1. She passed a credible fear interview on May 18, the first step in the asylum process, and was released the day she became deathly ill and was hospitalized.

“This is yet another unfortunate example of an alien who enters the United States with an untreated, unscreened medical condition,” said Corey A. Price, field office director for ICE in El Paso in a statement released after Medina Leon’s death.

“There is a crisis at our southern border with a mass influx of aliens lured by the lies of human smugglers who profit without regard for human life or well-being. 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,” Price said.

Allegra Love, director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, took issue with Price’s statement.

“I don’t understand how you can even characterize someone’s health conditions as untreated or unscreened when they are begging to be treated and begging to be screened,” Love said. The organization provides legal services to immigrants, including transgender women seeking asylum, but did not represent Medina Leon.

“If she was untreated and unscreened, it happened in the six weeks she was detained by ICE,” said Love. She questions why Medina Leon did not get medication to prevent her HIV from becoming a life-threatening illness.

According to ICE, comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment detainees arrive. And all “detainees receive medical, dental and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility, a full health assessment within 14 days of entering ICE custody or arrival at a facility, and access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care,” according to a spokeswoman for ICE.

In March several organizations sent a letter to ICE and the Department of Homeland Security about the treatment of gay and transgender detainees at the Otero County Processing Center. Among the concerns, allegations that some detainees waited days or weeks after requesting medical care.

A member of the organization Diversidad sin Fronteras in Ciudad Ju├írez, who knew Medina Leon and visited her in the intensive care unit at the El Paso hospital, said in a news release, “She complained from having pain weeks before she was taken to the hospital.” The group did not respond to requests for an interview.

The original statement by the ICE field director said Medina Leon crossed the border illegally. But that was later corrected after an outcry from organizations on both sides of the border who knew the transgender woman made an asylum claim at a legal port of entry.

“She followed ICE protocol exactly. She waited in Mexico. She waited in line. She told them she was seeking asylum and accepted her detention,” Love said.

Medina Leon’s death came after a week of activities in memory of another transgender woman who died in ICE custody in New Mexico a year ago.

“We demand that ICE immediately release all trans and queer immigrants,” Jorge Gutierrez, executive director of Familia:Trans Queer Liberation Movement, said after Medina Leon’s death.

“It’s clear ICE poses a clear and present danger to all immigrants in their detention centers. We demand justice for Johana,” Gutierrez said in a news release.

The Salvadoran asylum-seeker died a day after the Transgender Law Center based in California filed a lawsuit against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security for withholding information about the death of Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez, who was detained for nearly two weeks. The 33-year-old transgender woman from Honduras died May 25 last year after being held at the Cibola County Correctional Center, which also houses ICE detainees. She died after being hospitalized in Albuquerque from dehydration and complications from HIV, according to an autopsy report.

“Justice for Johana and Roxsana means an end to the conditions that killed them, conditions that transgender people in migrant prisons across the country continue to endure,” according to Transgender Law Center executive director Kris Hayashi.