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Border & Immigration

Activists Allege Assault, Abuse In Death Of Transgender Asylum Seeker

Roxsana Hernandez, a transgender asylum seeker from Honduras, is seen in this undated photo.
Transgender Law Center
Roxsana Hernandez, a transgender asylum seeker from Honduras, is seen in this undated photo.

Transgender and immigrant rights activists Monday announced plans for a lawsuit over the death of Roxsana Hernandez, a trans asylum seeker from Honduras who died in government custody, alleging she endured "assault and abuse" before her death six months ago.

Hernandez, 33, entered the United States legally at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in May and was eventually transferred to a unit for transgender detainees at the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico. Activists say she was seeking asylum and that the legal aid group Al Otro Lado was planning to represent her claim.

One day after arriving in New Mexico, Hernandez was hospitalized with symptoms of pneumonia, dehydration and complications from HIV, according to a press release from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She died May 25. The press release properly referred to Hernandez with female pronouns but did not use her chosen first name of Roxsana.


Activists have adopted the hashtag #JusticeForRoxsana as a rallying cry to demand more information on the circumstances of Hernandez's death and draw attention to the especially vulnerable situation faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender migrants seeking to enter the United States. Many are fleeing discrimination and violence in their home countries, and encounter similar threats on their journey — sometimes from fellow migrants.

Activists Allege Assault, Abuse In Death Of Transgender Asylum Seeker

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The Transgender Law Center last week sent a letter to the state of New Mexico announcing its intent to file a personal injury and wrongful death claim against the state. The group released the letter after a press conference Monday, along with a diagram of injuries found on Hernandez's body.

"According to an independent autopsy report, Ms. Hernandez endured physical assault and abuse while in custody," the letter says. "Specifically, forensic evidence indicates she was handcuffed so tightly as to cause deep tissue bruising and struck repeatedly on the back and rib cage by an (ASP baton) or similar instrument while her hands were restrained behind her back."

Andrew Free, an immigration attorney partnering on the case with the Transgender Law Center, said the group would file a similar wrongful death claim against ICE before the end of the year. He said they are also litigating Freedom of Information Act requests related to Hernandez's death.


"They treated her like an animal," said Transgender Law Center Deputy Director Isa Noyola, reading from a statement from Hernandez's sisters. "Now all we have left with us is the hope that we can see justice for her."

ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett said via email the agency could not speak to the validity of the private autopsy, but that allegations of abuse against Hernandez were "false."

"A review of Hernandez's death conducted by ICE Health Service Corps medical professionals confirmed that she suffered from a history of untreated HIV," Bennett said. "At no time did the medical personnel treating Ms. Hernandez at Cibola General Hospital or Lovelace Medical Center raise any issues of suspected physical abuse."

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The Cibola County Correctional Center is run by the private, for-profit prison corporation CoreCivic.

At least 11 people have died in ICE custody in 2018. The agency announced the latest death on Monday — that of Russian national Mergensana Amar, who officials say attempted suicide Nov. 15 and was removed from life support after his brain activity ceased.

A report released earlier this year by a coalition of advocacy groups found half of the in-custody deaths reported by ICE in recent years were linked to substandard medical care. ICE responded saying the agency is committed to ensuring all detainees receive timely access to medical services and treatment.

A splinter group of LGBT migrants was among the first to arrive in Tijuana this month as part of the recent caravan of migrants from Central America. The San Diego LGBT Community Center said it has been providing the migrants with assistance.

"These asylum seekers we have been serving are young people with powerful stories of persecution in their home countries, brave and determined to find safety where they can be their authentic selves as LGBT people," said Cara Dessert, the Center's CEO. "We understand that seeking asylum is not a quick or easy process, but our San Diego LGBT community will continue to be here and to demand fair treatment for all asylum seekers."

Activists Allege Assault, Abuse In Death Of Transgender Asylum Seeker
The Transgender Law Center has announced plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit over the case of Roxsana Hernandez, a trans asylum seeker who died in the custody of ICE.