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A Trans Asylum Seeker Dies After Pleading to ICE for Medical Care

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A transgender asylum seeker from El Salvador died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody on June 1, the first day of LGBTQ pride month. Johana Medina Leon, known as Joa, had been detained at the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico for nearly two months and had repeatedly sought help for her ailments.

In an official statement on Joa’s death, ICE El Paso Field Office Director Corey A. Price blamed “a mass influx of aliens lured by the lies of human smugglers who profit without regard for human life or well-being.” Yet, had Joa received prompt medical care, she may have lived. And, in a disturbing pattern of bureaucratic obfuscation, ICE won’t count Joa’s death among those that occurred in its custody.

Joa’s death comes almost on the anniversary of Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez’s death in ICE custody, making Joa the second recent transgender woman asylum seeker to die in New Mexico. From 2003 to 2018, 176 people officially died while in ICE custody, and the agency has reported an additional 10 deaths since 2018. The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), however, has found that ICE dodges accountability by failing to meaningfully review deaths and that at least three deaths from 2018 went unreported. NIJC concluded that most deaths in ICE custody were related to unreasonable delays in obtaining necessary medical care, poor administration of that care, or a botched emergency response. In El Salvador, Joa had been a registered nurse and yet, in ICE detention, medical neglect appears to have played a role in her death.

Joa’s tragic death follows a series of troubling incidents that occurred at Otero County Processing Center, which is run by the for-profit Management and Training Corporation (MTC) and falls under the jurisdiction of the El Paso ICE Field Office. In March, a group of attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico, Santa Fe Dreamers Project, and Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center issued a collective letter calling attention to horrendous detention conditions that were putting LGBTQ asylum seekers held at Otero in danger. As visitors to the facility, we’ve personally spoken to three of the 12 individuals referenced in that letter. Moreover, visiting LGBTQ and other persons detained at Otero, we’ve been personally subjected to threatening behavior and verbal harassment by members of the facility staff who hold leadership positions. Thus, albeit in comparatively small doses, we’ve witnessed the types of abusive attitudes and behaviors that we have heard are far worse behind locked doors.

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Thanks !

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