Transgender asylum seeker Johana Medina Leon died June 1 after being held for six weeks at a private Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in New Mexico. Leon was a 25-year-old from El Salvador who requested asylum at the Paso del Norte Port of entry in Texas and was taken into custody on April 11.
By mid-May, she passed her credible fear interview where it was determined she would be victimized if she returned to her homeland. She wasn’t paroled until May 28 when she began complaining of chest pains and was taken to Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso, TX.
The fact that ICE released her once her health declined is indicative of a larger issue where ICE allegedly releases detainees once their health situation is dire so it’s not an in-custody death. Clara Long, a researcher with Human Rights Watch and one of the authors of a report about preventable in-custody deaths, spoke with Rewire about the issue of medical neglect in ICE centers.
“One concern we have, and it’s a very big fear, is that there are multiple reports of folks who are released from ICE custody while in critical condition,” she said. “When they die, they are no longer counted as in-custody deaths [by ICE]. We’re worried that’s a loophole being exploited — and for obvious reasons, we don’t have a number in terms of how often this is happening.”
According to The Washington Post, an independent autopsy found signs of abuse including “deep bruises” and “contusions” while The New York Times reported the autopsy stated that the causes of death were dehydration and HIV complications. According to an ICE report, her cause of death was cardiac arrest.
Corey Price, field office director for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations in El Paso, seemingly placed the blame on the Leon.
“This is yet another unfortunate example of an individual who illegally enters the United States with an untreated, unscreened medical condition,” Price said. “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 wellbeing. 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.”
Allegra Love, the executive director of the Sante Fe Dreamers Project, a nonprofit that provides free legal service to immigrants, said Leon followed the Department of Homeland Security protocol.
“She didn’t violate a single law coming to the U.S. to ask for political asylum,” Love told NBC News.
In March, lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, and the Santa Fe Dreamers Project alleged that LGBTQIA detainees were routinely harassed, discriminated against, and abused at the Otero County Processing Center, the same private detention center where Leon was held, NBC News reported.
According to their attorneys, the detainees who openly complained about how they were being treated, were placed in solitary confinement. Leon’s death comes almost exactly one year after the death of Roxsana Hernandez, 33, a Honduran trans woman who died of AIDS complications in ICE custody.
In an email statement to Colorlines, Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality wrote:
“Johana’s death is a yet another inhumane failure by ICE to treat those in its custody with even a modicum of care, humanity or dignity. The high rates of abuse and neglect endured by women like Johana and Roxsana are an unconscionable and immoral way for the richest country on Earth to treat people fleeing horrific persecution and seeking our help. It is increasingly clear the inhumanity of ICE as an agency is only fueled by the racist disdain throughout the Trump administration for the very lives we have a legal and moral duty to protect. We stand with Johana’s family and the advocates in Central America and the United States working to hold this administration accountable.”