Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) penned a letter on Thursday (27 June) to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), condemning its treatment of transgender refugees.
At the start of the month, Johana Medina Leon died after several weeks in the custody of ICE. She fled her home country of El Salvador due to violence and discrimination.
‘I write to express outrage regarding reports of yet another transgender inmate who died in ICE custody,’ Kennedy began the letter.
Kennedy addressed the letter to Mark A. Morgan, the acting director of ICE.
He continued: ‘The tragic death of Johana Medina Leon, a 25-year-old transgender woman, marks roughly the one-year anniversary fo the death of Roxsana Hernandez who, like Johana, sought asylum after fleeing transphobic violence only to die from reported neglect within your Agency’s custody.’
What happened to Leon in custody?
As Kennedy details in the letter, Leon presented herself in Texas on 18 May and passed her ‘credible fear’ interview. This meant she proved she would be persecuted in her home country if she were to return.
In El Salvador, she was a nurse, but could not practice due to her gender identity. She came to the US with hopes of practicing medicine and care.
She received parole on 28 May. Authorities sent her to the hospital with chest pain and a postive HIV test that same day. Several days later, she died of HIV complications.
According to Leon’s family, the detention center that held her ‘ignored her numerous requests for treatment even as her health rapidly deteriorated’.
‘In fact, according to her lawyers,’ Kennedy put forth, ‘Johana’s treatment in ICE custody was so deplorable, she pleaded to be deported, a request officials also denied.’
Reported abuse by ICE
‘Johana’s death has brought heightened attention to disturbing reports of abuse and dehumanizing treatment alleged by numerous LGBTQ inmates in ICE custody,’ Kennedy continued his letter. ‘And neither Johana’s nor Roxsana’s story appears to be isolated.’
He then lists several alleged reports of abuse.
These allegations including trans women forced to bathe and sleep with men, sexual harassment, lack of medical care, and solitary confinement.
‘I demand additional information regarding the conditions preceding Johana’s death and the steps your Agency is taking to prevent violations of basic human rights for asylum-seekers,’ Kennedy, who is Chair of Transgender Equality Task Force, concluded the letter.
Immigration has been a major pillar of Donald Trump’s presidency since the days of his campaign.
Since assuming office, asylum seekers have faced family separation, abuse, rejected applications, and deportation under the Trump administration. Many activists have called for the abolition of ICE, and immigration is a large issue in the currently presidential election.
Kennedy added in a statement: ‘When they set their sights on this nation from afar, they see a beacon of equality and justice but instead have found an Administration unwilling to provide lifesaving asylum and determined to match the cruelty they fled. ICE must answer for the preventable deaths of both Johana Medina Leon and Roxsana Hernandez.’
ICE did not immediately respond to GSN’s request for a response to Kennedy’s letter.
Update 1 July
ICE responded to GSN’s request for comment. Leticia Zamarripa, a spokesperson for ICE, provided the following statement:
Following the untimely passing of a transgender woman on June 1 at an El Paso, Texas, hospital, many unfounded allegations and blatant falsehoods have been published that have absolutely no basis in fact. To specifically address some of these false allegations: all transgender individuals detained at the Otero County (New Mexico) Detention Center are housed separately in designated living spaces, which include separate restrooms and showers. In addition, in accordance with ICE detention standards, all ICE detainees have access to religious, legal and medical services. ICE treats all detainees with dignity and respect.
ICE takes seriously all allegations and investigates them thoroughly. However, ICE cannot research or provide individual comment on any allegations, including alleged medical mistreatment without the specific details. ICE encourages such specific reporting so that all allegations can be thoroughly researched and corrected, if necessary, or debunked. However, the internet and social media require no such specifics or evidence to make outlandish and blatantly false allegations.