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Transgender Asylum-Seeker Dies Days After Release From ICE Custody

Johana Medina Leon spent six weeks in ICE custody and died within days of testing positive for HIV.

A transgender Salvadoran woman seeking asylum died in a Texas hospital on Saturday less than a week after being released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. 

In a statement to HuffPost on Monday, ICE confirmed the death of 25-year-old Johana Medina Leon who tested positive for HIV on May 28 and was complaining of chest pains when she was brought to El Paso’s Del Sol Medical Center that day.

An agency official blamed the death on a lack of medical treatment before Medina Leon entered the U.S.

“This is yet another unfortunate example of an alien who enters the United States with an untreated, unscreened medical condition,” said Corey A. Price, field office director for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations in El Paso. “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.”

Medina Leon was placed in ICE custody on April 14, three days after immigration officials encountered her at an El Paso port of entry.

Just over a month later, she “received a positive credible fear finding,” ICE said, meaning it was determined that Medina Leon had legitimate safety concerns and there was validity in her attempt to seek asylum. Shortly after, she was asked to appear before a U.S. immigration judge.

An asylum-seeker must submit an application to immigration judges, at which point the applicant must prove he or she is eligible for protection. It is then up to the judge to consider the case.

The day Medina Leon became ill and was transported to the medical center, “her case was reviewed and she was released on parole,” ICE said.

According to NBC News, up until then, Medina Leon was being detained at the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico. An American Civil Liberties Union investigation detailed in a March letter to ICE claimed that the facility was filled with “rampant sexual harassment, discrimination, and abuse,” as well as inadequate medical treatment.

Furthermore, the ACLU alleged that detainees were warned not to complain about the conditions, and when they did, they were placed in solitary confinement. 

In a tweet Monday, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) called the death “absolutely heartbreaking.”

“ICE is not prepared to manage the health care needs of those seeking to use their legal right to asylum,” she wrote. “Improper health care & a record of mistreatment of trans individuals took Johana Medina’s life.”

Medina Leon’s death comes a year after 33-year-old Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez, another transgender asylum-seeker from Honduras, died in ICE custody in May 2018. 

According to The Washington Post, an independent autopsy found signs of abuse including “deep bruises” and “contusions.”

The autopsy stated that the causes of death were dehydration and HIV complications, The New York Times reported.

Detainees cited by the report said that Hernandez experienced “diarrhea and vomiting episodes” that spanned “multiple days with no medical evaluation or treatment, until she was gravely ill.”

An ICE report stated that the cause of death was cardiac arrest.

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