Three U.S. senators on Wednesday called upon the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to release documents related to the case of a transgender Honduran woman with HIV who died in their custody.
The letter that U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) sent to Acting ICE Director Ronald Vitiello and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan notes Roxsana Hernández, 33, died in ICE custody on Nov. 25. The letter also highlights Hernández, who was part of a 300-person caravan that traveled to the U.S. border earlier this year, was taken into custody by Border Patrol on May 9 when she asked for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry south of San Diego.
Hernández, who was from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, entered ICE custody less than a week later and was being housed in a unit for trans detainees at the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, N.M. An ICE press release about Hernández’s death says she was admitted to a local hospital “with symptoms of pneumonia, dehydration and complications associated with HIV” on May 17.
The letter cites reports that indicate Hernández “endured freezing temperatures and was denied adequate food, water and medical care” while in custody at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. It specifically refers to a Nov. 26 article in the San Diego Union-Tribune that says Hernández “vomited” while ICE transported her between facilities “to the extent other detainees begged authorities to provide her with water and proper care.”
Hernández died at Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque, N.M. The letter notes the initial cause of death was listed as cardiac arrest.
The Transgender Law Center on Nov. 26 released the results of a second autopsy that shows Hernández was beaten before she died. The second autopsy also concludes the cause of death “was most probably severe complications of dehydration superimposed upon HIV infection, with the probable presence of one or more opportunistic infections.”
The Human Rights Campaign has sent Freedom of Information Act requests to ICE and CBP for documents that relate to Hernández’s death and the treatment of trans people in their custody. The senators’ letter notes ICE “has been uncooperative in releasing information about Ms. Hernández’s case.”
“This violates congressional requirements,” reads the letter. “Congress requires ICE to publish an initial report, for public release, on each in-custody death for within 30 days and similarly for a final report within 60 days. It has been over 180 days since Ms. Hernández was pronounced dead and no such report has been publicly released. ICE’s failure to release this report diminishes the systemic, traumatic, and in this case fatal, violence that transgender individuals experience daily as a result of their gender identity.”
“We request that ICE immediately release a full and complete death review and supporting documentation on Roxana Hernández to the public,” it adds. “We also request that ICE and CBP each provide us with complete accounting and documentation of the specific training that their officers, agents, and contractors receive related to the processing, medical evaluation and care, and safety of transgender individuals in custody.”
ICE denies Hernández was abused in its custody
Hernández’s death sparked outrage among immigrant advocates and their supporters in the U.S. and in Honduras. Her case has also factored into the overall criticism of President Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy that includes the separation of migrant children from their parents once they enter the U.S.
The Transgender Law Center and R. Andrew Free, a Nashville-based immigration lawyer, are planning to file a wrongful death lawsuit in New Mexico on behalf of Hernández’s family. Transgender Law Center Deputy Director Isa Noyola on Thursday told the Washington Blade in a statement that ICE “has failed to present Congress a report on Roxsana’s death and to answer our FOIA requests.”
“Immigration enforcement owes us answers and meaningful proof that they’ve taken steps to prevent a tragedy like what happened to Roxsana,” said Noyola. “Now is the time for LGBTQ folks and our allies to ask their elected representatives to follow the lead of Sens. Harris, Udall and Heinrich in asking for justice for Roxsana.”
An ICE official on Thursday told the Blade in response to the senators’ letter that it is “still determining the process for posting subsequent reviews of in-custody death and intends to comply fully with the directive from Congress.”
“Any detainee death review documents that are currently posted have been requested and provided via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request,” said the official.
ICE spokesperson Danielle Bennett has described allegations that Hernández was “abused in ICE custody” as “false.”
“A review of Hernandez’s death conducted by ICE Health Service Corps medical professionals confirmed that she suffered from a history of untreated HIV,” said Bennett in a statement. “At no time did the medical personnel treating Ms. Hernandez at Cibola General Hospital or Lovelace Medical Center raise any issues of suspected physical abuse.”
“ICE takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care, including those who come into ICE custody with prior medical conditions or who have never before received appropriate medical care,” added Bennett. “Any death that happens in ICE custody is a cause for concern, and the agency will continue its full review of this case according to standard protocols.”