July 26, 2019 at 5:06 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers and Ernesto Valle
Mother of trans Salvadoran woman who died after leaving ICE custody demands answers
Patricia Medina de Barrientos on July 24, 2019, looks at a picture on her cell phone of her child, Johana Medina León, a transgender woman who died in a Texas hospital on June 1, 2019, three days after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released her from their custody. Medina de Barrientos spoke exclusively with the Washington Blade in San Salvador, El Salvador. (Washington Blade photo by Ernesto Valle)

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — The mother of a transgender woman from El Salvador who died last month shortly after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released her from its custody said she was a “respectful, educated person.”

“She always watched out for other people,” Patricia Medina de Barrientos told the Washington Blade on Wednesday during an exclusive interview in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador. “[She was] very happy, respectful, always helping other people … she had many goals, dreams.”

Johana “Joa” Medina León passed away at Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, on June 1.

Medina, 25, worked as a private nurse in El Salvador. Her mother, who cried at several points during the interview, said Medina left the country on Jan. 13 because she had been attacked and threatened because she was trans.

“She decided to leave because she wanted to be a free person,” said Medina de Barrientos.

Johana Medina León was a private nurse in her native El Salvador before she migrated to the U.S. in January. Medina, who was transgender, died in a Texas hospital on June 1, 2019, three days after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released her from their custody. (Photo courtesy of Patricia Medina de Barrientos)

Medina de Barrientos said Medina entered Mexico and received a humanitarian visa that allowed her to legally travel in the country. Medina made her way to Ciudad Juárez, a city that is across the Rio Grande from El Paso, and stayed at a shelter for LGBTI migrants run by Respetttrans Chihuahua, a local advocacy group.

ICE in a press release it released after Medina died said she “illegally” entered the U.S. at the Paso del Norte Port of Entry between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez on April 11.

Medina de Barrientos confirmed Medina arrived in the U.S. on that day. ICE in its press release said Medina entered their custody on April 14.

Medina had been detained at the Otero County Processing Center — a privately-run ICE detention facility in Chaparral, N.M., outside of El Paso in which a dozen gay men and trans women earlier this year alleged they suffered mistreatment — before ICE “transported” her to the hospital on May 28 after “she complained of chest pains.” ICE in its press release said Medina on the same day requested an HIV test and tested positive.

ICE noted Medina on May 18 “received a positive credible fear finding” and four days later was summoned to appear before an immigration judge. Its press release said Medina on May 28, the same day she was admitted to the hospital, “was processed for release on parole.”

Medina de Barrientos said Medina described the conditions at the Otero County Processing Center as “bad.” Medina de Barrientos also told the Blade that Medina did not receive adequate medical care while detained there as her health deteriorated.

Otero County Processing Center personnel reportedly denied Medina’s request for water, sugar and salt that would have allowed her to prepare her own IV. Officials also allegedly ignored her request to be deported back to El Salvador in order to receive treatment.

“She became worse, worse, worse,” Medina de Barrientos told the Blade. “She asked for help because she was a nurse, but they refused. She was denied help. There was no medical attention.”

Medina de Barrientos said Medina’s partner in El Salvador, who is also a nurse, spoke with Medina shortly before she died. 

“She didn’t feel well because (she said) they were not treating us well,” she said, speaking through tears as she recalled what Medina’s partner told her. “They were not giving them medications.”

Medina de Barrientos said Medina’s partner had spoken with a detainee at the Otero County Processing Center who did not know she was at the hospital. Medina de Barrientos said she wanted to get a visa that would have allowed her to travel to the U.S. to be with Medina, but she passed away before she was able to get it.

“I wanted to be with my child,” said Medina de Barrientos. “My child needed me because she was alone.”

The Salvadoran government paid to send Medina’s body back to El Salvador for burial.

Johana Medina León (Photo courtesy of Patricia Medina de Barrientos)

Medina’s death sparked widespread outrage among LGBTI and immigration rights advocates in the U.S.

Massachusetts Congressman Joseph Kennedy in a letter to Acting ICE Mark Morgan has demanded additional information about Medina’s death. Medina’s family has also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security.

“Johana deserved to be protected by this country as a human being seeking asylum,” reads a press release that announces the lawsuit. “Instead, she was detained, humiliated, mistreated, and dumped at a hospital where she was not on the threshold of liberty; but, instead, on death’s door. We will get to the truth and hold this government accountable for its callous disregard of Johana.”  

Medina de Barrientos was concise when the Blade asked her about the lawsuit.

“I really want to know exactly what happened to him,” she said, referring to Medina.

An ICE spokesperson has not responded to the Blade’s request for comment on the lawsuit.

Medina died less than 13 months after Roxsana Hernández, a trans Honduran woman with HIV who had been briefly detained at the Cibola County Correctional Center, a privately-run facility in Milan, N.M., where ICE has created a unit for trans women in their custody, died at a New Mexico hospital. Brian Hastings, chief of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, on Thursday told U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) during a House Judiciary Committee hearing that HIV status can be used to justify the separation of migrants from their children at the border.

ICE has previously told the Blade the agency spends more than $250 million a year on healthcare for detainees. ICE has also noted a 2015 directive that requires personnel to, among other things, provide trans detainees with access to hormone therapy while they are in their custody.

Medina de Barrientos told the Blade she is aware of the Hernández case “through the community.”

“Her’s was not the first case,” said Medina de Barrientos. “There are similar ones.”

Medina de Barrientos also told the Blade that LGBTI activists in El Salvador and the U.S. continue to support her and her family.

“They are helping us a lot,” she said.

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