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Transgender Asylum-Seeker Who Died In ICE Custody Was Beaten, Autopsy Shows

By Dominique Mosbergen

A transgender asylum-seeker who fell sick and died while being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement may have been beaten while in federal custody, according to an independent autopsy report released this week.

The body of 33-year-old trans woman Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez was marked by “deep bruises” and “contusions” consistent with “blows and/or kicks and possible strikes with a blunt object,” The Washington Post reported on Monday, citing the autopsy commissioned by Hernández’s family. Her wrists showed signs of extensive hemorrhaging, which the report said was “typical of handcuff injuries.”

The autopsy shows Hernández “endured physical assault and abuse while in custody,” said the California-based Transgender Law Center, which, along with other activist groups, plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit against ICE and other federal immigration agencies on behalf of Hernández’s family. The report also shows that Hernández, who was HIV-positive, died from “severe complications of dehydration” exacerbated by HIV infection.

“People need to know that she died of dehydration,” Lynly Egyes, director of litigation for the Transgender Law Center, told the San Diego Union-Tribune.  “People need to know that her death was preventable.”

ICE disputed the autopsy findings. Spokeswoman Danielle Bennett told The Daily Beast the agency could not “speak to the validity of the private autopsy,” but said allegations that Hernández was abused in federal custody “are false.” 

“A review of Hernández’s death conducted by ICE Health Service Corps medical professionals confirmed that she suffered from a history of untreated HIV. At no time did the medical personnel treating Ms. Hernández at Cibola General Hospital or Lovelace Medical Center raise any issues of suspected physical abuse,” Bennett said. 

Hernández ― who fled violence and discrimination in her native Honduras ― died on May 25, weeks after arriving at the San Ysidro Port of Entry on the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a caravan of migrants from Central America.

She was taken into ICE custody on May 9 and was detained in holding cells known as “iceboxes” because of how cold they are, according to an earlier BuzzFeed report. Lights in the cells are on 24 hours a day, advocacy groups said, and Hernández was not provided with adequate food or medical care.

A week later, Hernández was transferred to a transgender unit at Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico. She was there for a day before she was admitted to Cibola General Hospital with severe diarrhea and vomiting. She was later transferred via air ambulance to Albuquerque’s Lovelace Medical Center, where she died in intensive care. 

Forensic pathologist Kris Sperry, who conducted the independent autopsy, said Hernández had diarrhea and vomiting for multiple days before she received medical attention.

“According to observations of other detainees who were with Ms. Hernández Rodriguez, the diarrhea and vomiting episodes persisted over multiple days with no medical evaluation or treatment, until she was gravely ill,” Sperry wrote in the report, according to The Washington Post. 

ICE said in a news release about the death that Hernández had been admitted to Cibola General Hospital with “symptoms of pneumonia, dehydration and complications associated with HIV.” The agency said cardiac arrest was the preliminary cause of death.

According to the Union-Tribune, ICE has yet to release a detainee death report for Hernández, even though Congress now requires the agency to finalize such reports within 60 days. It has been more than 180 days since Hernández died, the paper noted.

Hernández likely sustained physical abuse while she was in custody at the Cibola County Correctional Center, according to an attorney for her family.

“We think that based on interviews, that abuse of that nature definitely would have been noticed by people around her,” lawyer R. Andrew Free told the Post. “And based on her medical care, we believe that abuse would have been noticed by medical providers, and that leaves one place where there’s still an information vacuum ... Cibola.”

Cibola is operated under contract by CoreCivic, which describes itself as the second-largest private prison company in the U.S.

A company spokeswoman told The Daily Beast it takes “the health and well-being of those entrusted to our care very seriously,” and is “committed to providing a safe environment for transgender detainees.”

Hernández had been deported from the United States three times previously. She said she fled Honduras in hopes of escaping the violence and discrimination she faced there as a transgender woman. She alleged she was gang-raped by four members of the MS-13 gang. “As a result I got HIV,” she told BuzzFeed. 

“Trans people in my neighborhood are killed and chopped into pieces, then dumped inside potato bags,” Hernández said. “I didn’t want to come to Mexico — I wanted to stay in Honduras but I couldn’t… They kill trans people in Honduras. I’m scared of that.”