Dozens of House members demand better treatment of transgender asylum seekers in ICE custody

“We urge ICE to seriously consider the asylum claims of transgender migrants who demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution," the lawmakers wrote.
Image: Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officer
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer looks on during an operation in Escondido, California on July 8, 2019.Gregory Bull / AP file

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By Ben Kesslen

Nearly three dozen members of Congress sent a letter to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Thursday morning expressing their concern over the agency’s treatment of transgender detainees and demanding the agency take transgender migrants’ asylum claims more seriously.

The letter, sent by 34 lawmakers and spearheaded by Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., was signed by Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Deb Haaland, D-N.M., and Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., among others and comes after the deaths of two transgender women who were held in detention.

In their message, the lawmakers said, “We urge ICE to seriously consider the asylum claims of transgender migrants who demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution based on their ‘membership in a particular social group’ and adhere to its own policies regulating the treatment of transgender detainees.”

The letter stressed ICE should especially consider asylum claims coming from the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, where “violence against the transgender community occurs at alarming rates.” In one study conducted by the UN Refugee Agency, 88 percent of LGBTQ asylum seekers fleeing the Northern Triangle reported experiencing sexual and gender-based violence in their countries of origin.

The letter comes at the time when ICE’s treatment of transgender asylum seekers has come under continued and increased scrutiny.

Johana Medina LeonFamily photo

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On June 1, Johana Medina Leon, a transgender nurse from El Salvador seeking asylum in the U.S, died in Texas after spending six weeks in ICE custody. Her family is mounting a wrongful death suit against ICE, saying Leon, 25, was discriminated against and mistreated, and ICE is responsible for her premature death. Leon’s passing came a year after Roxsana Hernandez, a transgender woman from Honduras, died in ICE custody in New Mexico.

In March, the American Civil Liberties Union, along with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project and other groups, alleged “rampant” abuse and "unconscionable conditions" for LGBTQ immigrants at a New Mexico ICE facility, and an NBC News investigation found that transgender migrants often are placed in solitary confinement and face mistreatment while in detention.

In their letter, lawmakers cited the violence and structural challenges transgender migrants seeking asylum face in their home countries.

“Transgender women have been murdered after they were deported once their asylum claims were denied,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter, highlighting the case of Camila Díaz Córdova, who died in a hospital in El Salvador after she was kidnapped and beaten. Díaz Córdova had sought asylum in the U.S., documenting years of constant death threats, but was nonetheless deported.

The lawmakers also brought up the treatment of Alejandra Barrera, a 44-year-old transgender woman from El Salvador who they say requested asylum in November 2017 and has been held in detention by ICE since. Barrera, the lawmakers wrote, has been denied humanitarian parole five times, despite the fact that she requires specialized medical care. The letter asks for Barrera’s request for humanitarian parole and asylum to be seriously considered.

An ICE spokesperson told NBC News the agency does not comment on Congressional correspondence. ICE has previously touted its unit for transgender women in the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico as an example of their fair treatment of transgender migrants, despite documented concerns about the conditions there.

But lawmakers are not satisfied.

“We ask that you honor the longstanding reputation of the United States as a safe refuge for individuals who face persecution and violence,” the lawmakers said. “Specifically, we ask that you bring ICE into compliance with its stated policy for the treatment of transgender detainees.”

Pallone condemned the "inhumane" and "illegal" treatment of vulnerable immigrant communities in a statement to NBC News, saying the U.S. "is turning its back on those who desperately need our help and who should be protected under U.S. law.”

"For a long time, it’s been evident that ICE isn't prepared to manage the health care needs of people seeking their right to asylum," Haaland said in an interview with NBC News Tuesday morning, adding that "ICE's record of mistreatment of trans individuals took Johana Medina's life" and she is worried about other transgender migrants currently at-risk.

"As an indigenous woman, our history shows that we supported and accepted LGBTQ people into our communities for centuries and centuries," the congresswoman said. "We want every human being to be valued. We need to stop this horrible treatment."

Closing their letter, the lawmakers demanded ICE “take tangible steps to protect the legal rights of transgender individuals who meet the necessary criteria to be considered for asylum.”