Transgender Honduran woman's death in US 'ice box' detention prompts outcry
Roxana Hernández reportedly died after five days in US custody in facilities notorious for their freezing temperatures
by Carla Green, The Guardian, May 31 2018
A transgender Honduran woman died in Ice custody last Friday after coming to the US as part of a caravan of Central American migrants, including several dozen other transgender women fleeing persecution in their respective countries.
Roxana Hernández reportedly died from HIV-related complications following an alleged five-day detention in what’s known by immigrant rights groups as the “ice box” – Ice detention facilities notorious for their freezing temperatures.
Her death has prompted an outcry, with protests in New Mexico, where Hernández died, and activists speaking out in New York, with some posting social media under the hashtags #JusticeforRoxana and #AbolishICE.
The Transgender Law Center (TLC), a leading transgender advocacy group, called Hernández’s treatment in US custody “negligent”, and – along with other civil rights groups – has issued a list of demands, including that Ice stop detaining transgender women altogether.
“If you have an incoming immigrant that shows signs of medical distress – including being HIV positive and having pneumonia – it is negligent to place them in the ‘ice box’ for any amount of time,” said Flor Bermudez, the legal director of TLC. “They might have wrongfully caused her death.”
A statement from Ice said that Hernández arrived in the US on 9 May at the San Ysidro port of entry, was transferred to the transgender unit of Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico, and was hospitalized the next day for dehydration, pneumonia and other HIV-related complications. She died eight days later.
According to Ice, Hernández was the sixth immigrant to die in its custody since October of last year.
Hernández and other women in the caravan were fleeing countries where it is often dangerous and even deadly to be trans, Bermudez said. Yet despite coming to the US in search of safety, trans women in Ice detention can face “similar risks” to those they face at home, TLC said in its statement. “They are targeted and harassed by police or held in detention where they experience violence, discrimination, and [unable] to access to medical care, all of which may lead to dire consequences.”
Concerns about the protection of LGBT migrants were echoed in a letter sent by 19 members of Congress on Wednesday to the US secretary of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen.
“These individuals, particularly transgender women, are extremely vulnerable to abuse, including sexual assault, while in custody,” said the letter, which was signed by the US representative Kathleen M Rice, a Democrat from New York, and 18 other US lawmakers.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News before she left Mexico, Hernández said that she contracted HIV after being gang-raped while walking home in her neighborhood. “Trans people in my neighborhood are killed and chopped into pieces, then dumped inside potato bags,” she told the news organization.
A 2016 report from TLC and Cornell University on the state of human rights abuses for transgender women in Mexico – which Bermudez said holds true for most countries in Central America – found that transgender women “still face pervasive discrimination, hatred, violence, police abuse, rape torture, and vicious murder”. The situation has only worsened as transgender women have become more visible and the LGBT community in Mexico have won some battles, like the right to gay marriage in 2010, the report found.
Hernández had previously come to the United States on three separate occasions, according to Ice, and was eventually deported each time. This time, she joined a caravan of migrants organized by the advocacy group Pueblo Sin Fronteras after saving enough money to meet up with the caravan in Guatemala, BuzzFeed News reported.
In its statement about Hernández’s death, Ice said that all detainees “receive medical, dental and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility … and access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care”. But Bermudez said “that’s not the experience that migrants have”, and particularly so in the case of transgender people.
“They are a vulnerable population with particular needs,” Bermudez said. “[Ice is] obviously not equipped to handle the medical needs that many trans folks have.”