June 3, 2019 at 12:13 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Transgender woman from El Salvador dies after release from ICE custody
Johana “Joa” Medina Leon, a 25-year-old transgender woman from El Salvador, died in a Texas hospital on June 1, 2019, after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released her from ICE custody. (Photo courtesy of Diversidad Sin Fronteras’ Facebook page)

A transgender woman from El Salvador who had been in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody died on Saturday.

An ICE press release says Johana “Joa” Medina Leon, who was identified by her birth name, passed away at a hospital in El Paso, Texas.

The press release says Medina, 25, “illegally” entered the U.S. at the Paso del Norte Port of Entry between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on April 11.

ICE notes Medina “was processed as an expedited removal when she applied for admission to enter the United States.” The press release says Medina entered ICE custody on April 14.

The press release noted Media on May 18 “received a positive credible fear finding” and four days later “was issued a notice to appear before” an immigration judge.

ICE says Medina on May 28 requested an HIV test and tested positive. The press release notes she was “transported” to Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso on the same day after “she complained of chest pains.”

“That same day, her case was reviewed and she was processed for release on parole,” says ICE.

Medina had been held at the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M., which is roughly 30 miles north of El Paso, before her release.

An ICE spokesperson on Monday told the Washington Blade that Medina was not in the agency’s custody when she died. Corey A Price, field office director for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations in El Paso, in the press release described Medina’s death as “yet another unfortunate example of an alien who enters the United States with an untreated, unscreened medical condition.”

“There is a crisis at our southern border with a mass influx of aliens lured by the lies of human smugglers who profit without regard for human life or well-being,” he said. “Many of these aliens attempt to enter the United States with untreated or unknown diseases, which are not diagnosed until they are examined while in detention.”

Medina died roughly a year after Roxsana Hernández, a transgender Honduran woman with HIV, died at a New Mexico hospital while in ICE custody.

New Mexico officials in April said an autopsy they performed on Hernández found she died from Castleman disease associated with AIDS. The results of a second autopsy the Transgender Law Center released late last year concluded Hernández was beaten before her death.

Hernández entered U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody on May 9, 2018, when she asked for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry south of San Diego. She was then transferred to the Cibola County Correctional Center in Grants, N.M., which has a unit for trans detainees.

The Transgender Law Center on May 31 filed a lawsuit against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security for “illegally withholding information about” Hernández’s death.

“A few days after marking the anniversary of Roxsana Hernández’s death, we are devastated and outraged by reports that Johana Medina, a transgender woman and refugee from El Salvador, has died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody,” said the Transgender Law Center in a press release.

Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, the openly gay deputy assistant director of ICE ERO Custody Programs, told the Blade late last year a 2015 memorandum directs ICE personnel to allow trans detainees to identify themselves based on their gender identity on data forms, establishes guidelines for a “respectful, safe and secure environment” for them and requires detention facilities to provide access to hormone therapy and other trans-specific health care. The Transgender Law Center and other advocacy groups nevertheless remain highly critical of ICE over the treatment of trans people in their custody and the Trump administration’s overall immigration policy.

“Justice for Roxsana means justice for Johana,” said the Transgender Law Center in its press release. “Justice for Johana and Roxsana means an end to the conditions that killed them, conditions that transgender people in migrant prisons across the country continue to endure.”  

“Today, we mourn Johana, and renew our pledge to seek justice for her, for Roxsana, and for all black and brown trans women detained in migrant prisons,” added the advocacy group. 

Human Rights Campaign Director of Government Affairs David Stacy on Monday described Medina’s death as “yet another horrific and deeply disturbing development in the ongoing crisis of anti-LGBTQ actions by immigration authorities.”

“This follows the still-unexplained death of Roxsana Hernandez and numerous reports of mistreatment of LGBTQ migrants and asylum seekers while in custody of CBP and ICE,” added Stacy in his statement. “It is critical that every person be treated with safety, dignity, and respect by immigration authorities, and this latest tragedy demands greater transparency and accountability of these agencies.”

The Washington Blade will provide additional updates as they become available.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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