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Trans Woman Diagnosed With HIV Died Days After ICE Released Her

She had been in custody since April 11

by Emma Ockerman
Jun 3 2019, 3:17pm

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Johana Medina Leon, a 25-year-old transgender woman who'd come to the U.S. fleeing El Salvador, died over the weekend after more than six weeks in ICE custody.

While in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in New Mexico last Tuesday, Leon, who was known to friends as Joa, complained of chest pains and was taken to the hospital, according to the Washington Post. She was then paroled from custody, meaning she was released on agreed-upon conditions with the government. That day, she also requested an HIV test, which came back positive.

She had been in custody since April 11, when she presented herself at the Paso del Norte Port of Entry in El Paso, Texas, and made an asylum claim. She received a positive credible fear finding from ICE, according to NBC News, after claiming persecution due to her gender identity. Gender-based violence is widespread in Northern Triangle countries such as El Salvador, according to Amnesty International. However, the facility where Leon had been based, the Otero County Processing Center, has faced claims of physical and verbal abuse from gay and transgender detainees, according to advocates and lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union and El Paso Dreamers Project. LGBTQ migrants are 97 percent more likely to be sexually assaulted when compared to other detainees, according to a 2018 report from the Center for American Progress.

“This is yet another unfortunate example of an individual who illegally enters the United States with an untreated, unscreened medical condition,” Corey A. Price, field office director for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations in El Paso, said in a statement to the Washington Post. “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. 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.” (A few hours later ICE issued a revised statement from Price without the word "illegally.")

In May 2018, a transgender woman named Roxana Hernandez, who was seeking asylum in the U.S. from Honduras, died in ICE custody at 33 years old due to complications from an AIDS-related illness called multicentric Castleman disease. She died at a hospital in Albequerque, New Mexico, and had previously been held in the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico. The Transgender Law Center sued ICE and the Department of Homeland Security on Friday over allegations of illegally withholding information about Hernandez’s death.

“Justice for Roxsana means justice for Johana,” Kris Hayashi, executive director of Transgender Law Center, said in a statement Sunday. “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.”

Cover: A transgender woman marches with other protesters to end transgender detention in Santa Ana on Thursday, May 4, 2017. (Paul Rodriguez/The Orange County Register via AP)