August 1, 2019 at 11:31 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Members of Congress urge ICE to improve transgender detainee treatment
A transgender woman eats inside a unit for trans detainees in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody at the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, N.M., on June 6, 2019. More than 30 members of Congress on Aug. 1, 2019, urged Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence to improve the way his agency treats trans people who are in its custody. (Photo public domain)

More than 30 members of Congress on Thursday sent a letter to Acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Matthew Albence about the treatment of transgender detainees in their custody.

“We are gravely concerned regarding Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) policies for individuals seeking asylum in the United States,” wrote the lawmakers. “Today, we write to express our strong concerns with ICE’s treatment of transgender migrants seeking asylum in the United States, especially those coming to the U.S. from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.”

The letter specifically refers to Alejandra, a trans Salvadoran activist who is in ICE custody at the privately-run Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, N.M.

The lawmakers note Alejandra asked for asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border in November 2017 and “has been held in detention by ICE ever since.” The letter states Alejandra remains at the Cibola County Correctional Center, even though she has “documented health conditions that require specialized care.”

The letter also notes the U.S. deported Camila Díaz Córdova, another trans Salvadoran woman, a few months before she was killed earlier this year. Salvadoran authorities have charged three police officers with Díaz’s murder.

“This tragedy occurred after she was deported from the U.S. a few months earlier,” said the lawmakers in their letter. “Miss Díaz Córdova received persistent death threats for years, which she had documented in her asylum application.”

U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Albio Sires (D-N.J.), Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Jason Crow (D-Colo.), Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), David Trone (D-Md.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Anthony Brown (D-Md.), Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.), Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), Adam Smith (D-Wash.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Dina Titus (D-Nev.) signed the letter.

Kennedy late last month demanded additional information about the death of Johana “Joa” Medina León, a trans Salvadoran woman who died at a hospital in El Paso, Texas, on June 1, three days after ICE released her from its custody.

Medina’s mother, Patricia Medina de Barrientos, told the Washington Blade on July 24 during an exclusive interview in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador that Medina left El Salvador earlier this year after she was attacked and harassed because of her gender identity.

Medina de Barrientos said Medina did not receive adequate medical care while detained at the privately-run Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M. Medina’s family has also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security.

“I really want to know exactly what happened,” Medina de Barrientos told the Blade in San Salvador.

Johana “Joa” Medina León died on June 1, 2019, three days after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released her from their custody. Medina’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security. (Photo courtesy of Patricia Medina de Barrientos)

Trans detainees complain of harassment, inadequate health care

ICE in 2017 opened a unit for trans women in their custody at the Cibola County Correctional Center.

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

Reports of abuse and mistreatment of trans women in ICE custody and a lack of adequate health care nevertheless persist.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, the Santa Fe Dreamers Project and Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in a March 25 letter to ICE and the Department of Homeland Security said a dozen trans and gay detainees suffered “rampant sexual harassment, discrimination and abuse” at the facility.

Twenty-nine trans women who were in ICE custody at the Cibola County Correctional Center in a letter they sent to Trans Queer Pueblo, a Phoenix-based group that advocates on behalf of undocumented LGBT immigrants, said personnel at the facility “psychologically and verbally” mistreat them and they do not receive “adequate” medical care. The trans detainees wrote the letter two weeks after the Blade and a handful of other media outlets visited the facility.

Leche Merchant, a trans Mexican woman, spoke with the Blade on July 16 shortly after she arrived at a shelter for LGBT migrants in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

Merchant said she had been at the Cibola County Correctional Center for two years until ICE released her from custody the day before she arrived in the Mexican border city that is across the Rio Grande from El Paso.

Merchant told the Blade a judge who denied her asylum claim said she “did not submit sufficient objective evidence to demonstrate that I am a transgender woman.”

Merchant also said a fellow detainee raped her while in ICE custody at the Cibola County Correctional Center. She told the Blade she was in solidary confinement when reporters toured the facility.

“We ask that you honor the longstanding reputation of the United States as a safe refuge for individuals who face this deplorable treatment,” wrote the lawmakers in their letter. “Specifically, we ask that you bring ICE into compliance with its stated policy for the treatment of transgender detainees.”

“We further ask that you take tangible steps to protect the legal rights of transgender individuals who meet the necessary criteria to be considered for asylum,” they add.

The Blade has reached out to an ICE spokesperson for comment on the letter.

Leche Merchant, a transgender woman from the Mexican state of Guerrero, was in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody at the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico for more than two years. She was released from the facility on July 15, 2019, and arrived at a shelter in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, that is run by Respetttrans Chihuahua, a trans advocacy group in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, the following day. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

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

© Copyright Brown, Naff, Pitts Omnimedia, Inc. 2019. All rights reserved.