Transgender asylum seeker dies after falling ill in US custody

Johana Medina Leon died at a Texas hospital after complaining ‘for weeks’ she needed medical attention, advocates say.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Johana Medina Leon, 25, died after falling ill at the Otero County Processing Center, a private Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centre [File: Mike Blake/Reuters]

A transgender asylum seeker from El Salvador died at a Texas hospital on Saturday, after complaining for weeks to United States immigration authorities that she was ill and needed medical attention, rights groups said. 

Johana Medina Leon, 25, died after falling ill at the Otero County Processing Center, a private Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centre in New Mexico, officials said. 

“For weeks she pleaded for medical help, referring to health problems caused by complications with HIV/AIDS,” said Grecia, a transgender advocate and leader of the Casa Migrante en Juarez rights group. Grecia said she had visited Medina Leon on Saturday morning, hours before the hospital called her to tell her that Medina Leon had died. 

According to US media, Medina Leon presented herself at a port of entry on April 11 to request asylum. She was taken into ICE custody three days later. On May 18, immigration officials determined that her fear of persecution, if returned to El Salvador, was credible. 

On May 28, she complained of chest pains. Earlier that morning, she had requested an HIV test, which came back positive, US media said. 

She was then taken to a hospital in El Paso, Texas. She had also been processed for release on parole, ICE said in a statement. She died four days later while in the hospital.

“This is yet another unfortunate example of an individual who illegally enters the United States with an untreated, unscreened medical condition,” ICE said in a statement. 

But rights groups said that Medina Leon did not enter the US “illegally” and followed the Department of Homeland Security protocol for requesting asylum. 

“She didn’t violate a single law coming to the US to ask for political asylum,” Allegra Love, the executive director of the Sante Fe Dreamers Project, told NBC News.

Treatment at Otero

Medina Leon’s death comes amid allegations of mistreatment at the Otero facility. 

Nathan Craig, a member of Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention (AVID) in the Chihuahua Desert, was cited by the Washington Post as saying that he learned as early as May 24 that all four transgender women at Otero, including Medina Leon, were sick.

Craig told the newspaper, the transgender detainees asked the staff to give Medina Leon intravenous fluids but they refused to do so.

In March, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center and the Santa Fe Dreamers Project sent a letter to ICE demanding an investigation into allegations of “sexual harassment, medical neglect and retaliation against transgender women and gay men” at the Otero facility. 

Leon’s death comes about a year after the death of another transgender woman – Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez from Honduras – at another New Mexico detention centre.

Rodriguez’s cause of death was related to “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome”, according to an official autopsy cited by US media. 

But an independent autopsy performed for the Transgender Law Center, which filed a wrongful death notice, said Rodriguez died of dehydration and complications of AIDS/HIV after enduring “physical assault and abuse while in custody”.

“When I looked at [Medina Leon on Saturday morning], I said what happened a year ago to Roxsana in the month of May could happen to JOA [Medina Leon] right in there,” Casa Migrante en Juarez’s Grecia said. “And it did.”

Separately on Sunday, a Salvadoran man died in US custody after suffering an apparent seizure, US Customs and Border Protection said in a statement.

Transgender woman death
Protesters rally outside a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Albuquerque, New Mexico [File: Mary Hudetz/AP]
Source: Al Jazeera