The war on refugees claimed another victim on May 25. Roxsana Hernandez, a 33-year-old transgender woman from Honduras, died in a New Mexico hospital from health complications due to pneumonia after being denied proper medical care for a week in a detention cell run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in San Ysidro, California.
Roxsana was seeking asylum and arrived at the U.S. border as part of the well-publicized caravan of more than 1,000 Central American migrants.
While traveling with the caravan, Hernandez told Adolfo Flores of Buzzfeed that she had fled Honduras due to the violence and discrimination she experienced as a trans woman. Months earlier, she was assaulted by MS-13 gang members.
“Four of them raped me, and as a result, I got HIV,” she said. “Trans people in my neighborhood are killed and chopped into pieces, then dumped inside potato bags.”
“I didn’t want to come to Mexico – I wanted to stay in Honduras, but I couldn’t,” she added. “They kill trans people in Honduras. I’m scared of that.”
Roxsana viewed her only option for survival to make the journey to the U.S., where she had previously been deported from. But when she arrived at the border with the caravan, Border Patrol placed her for five days in one of the holding cells commonly known as hieleras (iceboxes) for their freezing temperatures.
“She started coughing a long, had much pain in her whole body,” another transgender detainee named Stacy told Buzzfeed. “When she ate, she would vomit and had diarrhea from the food.”
Stacy reports that immigration agents yelled at Roxsana for being sick and denied her requests for a doctor. By the time she was transferred from federal custody to a transgender unit at Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico, she was very sick and was quickly taken to Cibola General Hospital, before being airlifted to the Lovelace Medical Center in Albequerque. Hernandez was in intensive care there until she died a week later.
“Since she died, I’ve dreamed about her being at my side; we were always together through Mexico,” said Stacy, who was also with the caravan. “Because of what happened, I feel bad and am afraid that the same could happen to me, since I have HIV.”
ICE reported Roxsana Hernandez’s cause of death as cardiac arrest, but given that she was at a high risk of infection due to disruption in her medical treatment for HIV, she was clearly killed by the horrific conditions and medical neglect of ICE and CBP.
Sadly, Roxsana’s experience is all too common for detained immigrants who require vital medications, particularly HIV medication. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that “in extreme cases, transgender women were unable to access their HIV medications for periods ranging from two to three months after entering detention.”
Despite this evidence to the contrary, ICE claimed in a press release following Roxsana’s death that “all ICE detainees receive medical, dental and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility, a full health assessment within 14 days of entering ICE custody or arrival at a facility.”
Until 2015, ICE put trans women in male facilities, where they faced high rates of physical and sexual assault and abuse. Today, HRW reports, assault by guards is still common, and the policy’s implementation is left up to ICE’s discretion to determine if an individual “identifies as transgender.”
These abuses mirror the dreadful conditions in the U.S. criminal justice system as a whole. A National Inmate Survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2014 found that “33.2 percent of transgender women in state and federal prisons report experiencing sexual abuse by other prisoners, and 15.2 percent reported abuse by facility staff.”
The alternative is placing trans women in solitary confinement, which is known to have significant mental health effects, until they can be transferred to a transgender unit, if and when there is space available.
The statement issued by ICE regarding Roxsana’s death used her birth name rather than her chosen name, and then proceeded to list her minor criminal offenses, including prostitution – as if those have anything to do with the death of someone in the agency’s custody.
Furthermore, because undocumented immigrants lack legal work authorization, they are often forced to work some of the lowest-paying jobs, without basic work protections. Immigrants who are trans women face even greater exploitation based on both their immigration status and gender presentation.
A survey of trans women by the National Transgender Equality Center found unemployment rates three times higher than the national average, which leads many trans women into sex work, drug sales and other criminalized activity.
The survey’s finding that “one in five (20 percent) have participated in the underground economy for income at some point in their lives, including 12 percent who have done sex work in exchange for income,” shows why the immigrants rights movement needs to push back against false divisions between “deserving” and “criminal” immigrants.”
The recent announcement from Attorney General Jeff Sessions that anti-woman violence will not be considered grounds for asylum has made clear this administration’s open contempt for gender equality. The struggle for refugees seeking asylum needs to include fighting for the lives of trans women rotting in immigration detention.
On June 6, Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement called a #JusticeforRoxsana national day of action in a number of cities in the U.S. and Mexico. It’s a small but important step towards demanding that Roxsana not be forgotten – and that the agencies that killed her be abolished.