Democratic lawmakers call on ICE to release transgender migrants

The 45 lawmakers cited the deaths of two transgender women, Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez and Johana Medina León, who died in ICE custody.
Image: Cibola County Correctional Center
Immigration detainees use a beauty salon that has been set up at a dedicated unit for transgender women in the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, N.M., on June 6, 2019.Ron Rogers / ICE via AP file
By Tim Fitzsimons

A group of 45 Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Tuesday demanding the agency release all transgender migrants in its custody.

“This already vulnerable population faces a heightened and unique set of injustices while in immigration detention,” the letter stated. “Transgender migrants and asylum seekers are particuarly vulnerable to sexual harassment, solitary confinement, physical assault, and medical neglect.”

At least two transgender migrants have died in ICE custody in the past two years. Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez, a Honduran, died of complications from untreated HIV in 2018. Rodriguez did not receive antiretroviral therapy while in ICE custody, despite guidelines mandating that all detainees receive the minimum standard of care, which for HIV infection is ARV therapy. Last year, another HIV-positive transgender migrant, Johana Medina León from El Salvador, died shortly after being released from ICE custody, where she had requested medical assistance.

After León died last summer, Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, called the two deaths “a direct result of U.S. government policy, and will continue unless we force dramatic change."

Advocates have long accused ICE of improper treatment of LGBTQ migrants, particularly after Hernandez died from a rare, AIDS-related illness at its Cibola detention center in New Mexico.

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The Cibola unit — touted by the agency as its premiere detention facility for trans migrants — failed to treat Hernandez’s diagnosed HIV infection for 12 days, despite what ICE has claimed is a maximum 24-hour turnaround on sick-call requests.

The 45 lawmakers in their letter claim that none of ICE’s detention centers — including Cibola — are contracted specifically for housing trans inmates, a requirement set by ICE’s 2015 transgender detention standards. Speaking on background, a congressional staffer noted that at Cibola, ICE’s “compliance is currently voluntary and their standards could slip at any time with no repercussions.”

The letter notes that the “pervasive use of solitary confinement has caused particular harm to transgender migrants in detention.”

“ICE consistently utilizes solitary confinement for so-called protective purposes or violates its own guidance by using segregation as punishment, placing transgender people at risk of physical and mental health deterioration and vulnerability to sexual assault by ICE guards,” the letter states.

Representative Mike Quigley, a Democrat from Illinois, questions witnesses during a House Intelligence Committee impeachment inquiry hearing in Washington, on Nov. 19, 2019.Jacquelyn Martin / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., spearheaded the effort to demand the release of transgender migrants. In a press release shared with NBC News, he said if “ICE cannot provide appropriate and humane accommodations for these migrants, they must release them from detention.”

“Immigrants who have faced fear and violence in their pursuit of a new life in the United States should not be confronted with more fear and threats of violence when they arrive at our borders,” he stated. “Unfortunately, too often, that is exactly what many transgender immigrants face when placed in ICE detention facilities.”

When asked for comment, ICE spokesperson April Grant said in an email that the agency “will respond to Congressional correspondence through official channels and by appropriate officials at the agency.”

Immigration Equality, an advocacy group dedicated to LGBTQ immigrants, called the two deaths “tragic examples of the consequences of ICE’s mistreatment,” and endorsed the demands of the 45 lawmakers: “Transgender immigrants are not safe in ICE custody and must be released.”

“After fleeing horrific persecution in their countries of origin, our transgender clients seek protection in the U.S.,” Bridget Crawford, legal director of Immigration Equality, said. “However, rather than finding safety, our clients are routinely subjected to shocking mistreatment in immigration detention facilities, including sexual assault and harassment, medical neglect and prolonged solitary confinement as a purported means of ‘protecting’ transgender people from abuse.”

The lawmakers’ letter requests a detailed ICE plan by Jan. 27 outlining compliance, and requests semi-monthly updates to “demonstrate such compliance.”

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