Transgender Asylum Seekers Face Mistreatment and Abuse in ICE Detention
Recent reports showing a transgender woman was beaten before dying while in ICE custody highlights the severe conditions endured by those in the agency’s detention centers.
By Gillian Branstetter
As many across the country remain horrified by the tear-gassing of migrants seeking asylum within the United States, we also learned of the mistreatment and abuse faced by transgender asylum seekers through the details of one woman’s tragic and avoidable death.
Roxsana Hernandez, a transgender woman fleeing violence in Honduras, was beaten while in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to a newly released autopsy. After entering the country in May, she was held in ICE custody and denied adequate medical care, leading to her death by dehydration and prolonged lack of treatment for HIV. The Transgender Law Center recently helped file a wrongful death lawsuit over Roxsana’s death.
The abuse Roxsana faced highlights the cruelty of the country’s currently endured by many in the asylum process, made all the worse by a President hoping to abuse people seeking safety as fodder for racist and xenophobic campaign rhetoric. Often lost in the larger conversation about immigration, the risks faced by LGBTQ immigrants like Roxsana should remind us of the need to honor our country’s moral and legal duty to provide safety and refuge to those who need it.
Transgender people face sometimes life-threatening persecution in Central America, the region of origin for many migrants like Roxsana. As quoted by Buzzfeed, she was initially fleeing her native Honduras after being raped. “Trans people in my neighborhood are killed and chopped into pieces,” she said. “They kill trans people in Honduras. I’m scared of that.”
Many LGBTQ people escape these dangerous situations and foster community as they seek out safety. While the President drew attention to a group of migrants traveling north from Central America in October, roughly 80 LGBTQ members of that caravan split off and supported one another in their own journey. The first group to arrive in Tijuana and await entry into the United States, footage quickly appeared of the group hosting church services and even holding same-sex weddings.
The Trump administration has taken draconian and often extra-legal measures to thwart such asylum seekers, even prohibiting asylum for those fleeing domestic and gang violence as Roxsana was. Much like the family separation policy that shocked the nation this past summer, the limits on asylum seekers were designed to discourage people from seeking help in the U.S. altogether.
After enduring the arduous journey through Central America and Mexico, Roxsana arrived in the US last may. She entered the country through the San Ysidro legal port of entry, the same asylum entry point where border officials recently used tear gas against families and migrants seeking asylum. While held there, Roxsana was denied adequate food, water, and medical care and, after a short stay in a federal prison, was held in ICE custody at the intensive care unit of an Albuquerque hospital where she died on May 25. Her cause of death in government custody was determined to be dehydration, exacerbated by untreated HIV.
Roxsana is one of 11 people to die in ICE custody this year, and nearly 200 since the Bush administration (including another trans woman who died from untreated AIDS a decade ago). Detention centers run by the agency are notoriously hostile and dangerous places for transgender people. In our US Transgender Survey, nearly half of all transgender people held in such a facility were placed in solitary confinement, nearly one third were denied access to transition-related medical care, and one in four were subjected to physical abuse, as Roxsana apparently was.
Similar to treatment within the U.S. prison system, transgender people are frequently targeted and left exposed to sexual assault in ICE detention. According to data published by Rep. Kathleen Rice earlier this year, transgender detainees represent 12 percent of all sexual assault complaints filed from ICE detention centers, despite making up less than 0.1 percent of the total detainee population.
Transgender people are 97 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their counterparts.
Detention centers are overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, which is supposed to follow basic safety standards for detention under laws such as the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). ICE detention centers rarely comply with these guidelines and frequently shove transgender people into solitary confinement under the faulty argument it’s best for their own safety.
It’s a brutal environment for people who, after all, came to this country seeking safety and refuge from persecution abroad. Many asylum seekers like Roxsana enter through legal ports of entry and expect to begin the arduous legal process of applying for entry into the country. Instead, the Trump administration is clearly intent on treating them with zero regard for their humanity or their safety.
The problems experienced by transgender people in federal facilities did not start with Trump, nor are they isolated to ICE. But the death of Roxsana and the horrific conditions she endured are the result of a system clearly failing the very people who need our help the most.