The death on Friday last week of a transgender woman while in the custody of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has prompted advocates to demand that LGBTQ migrant detainees be freed until their cases are heard.
The outcry came as US President Donald Trump and others increasingly criticize the practice known as “catch and release,” in which migrants are freed while subject to deportation.
Federal officials are awaiting the results of an autopsy to determine what caused the death of the 33-year-old Honduran migrant at an Albuquerque hospital.
The woman was admitted after showing symptoms of pneumonia, dehydration and complications associated with HIV.
Activists identified the migrant as Roxana Hernandez and said she was part of a highly publicized caravan of Central American asylum seekers who traveled through Mexico to the US border at San Diego, California, in April.
The effort drew the attention of Trump, who tweeted that they should not be allowed to enter the US.
Authorities listed the woman’s name as Jeffry Hernandez when she was taken into custody in San Diego. She was later transferred to El Paso, Texas, and then to a detention center in New Mexico where she was housed in the transgender unit.
She was the sixth detainee to die in ICE custody since October last year.
Nineteen members of the US Congress on Wednesday sent a letter to US Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen expressing concern about how LBGTQ migrants are housed and whether they are protected from abuse.
“These individuals, particularly transgender women, are extremely vulnerable to abuse, including sexual assault, while in custody,” the letter said.
The letter asked the federal agency to use its discretion to release migrants considered at high risk for abuse, so they are safe throughout their immigration proceedings.
The California-based Transgender Law Center and other groups also issued statements demanding that transgender people not be detained by immigration authorities while their cases are being reviewed.
“Immigration and Customs Enforcement clearly cannot detain transgender women safely and therefore should not detain transgender women at all,” said Aaron Morris, executive director of New York-based Immigration Equality, a LGBTQ migrant rights group.
“The community, now more than ever, needs to organize to protect our most vulnerable, in particular transgender immigrant women who are surrounded by violence on a daily basis,” Organizacion Latina de Trans en Texas president Anandrea Molina said.
Organizers from Pueblo Sin Fronteras said that Hernandez on May 9 presented herself to US Customs and Border Protection officers at the San Ysidro port of entry in California and asked for asylum.
The group questioned whether she received adequate medical care while in federal custody
She was on May 13 turned over to ICE, which oversees immigration detention centers. The two agencies are part of the US Department of Homeland Security.
All detainees get medical, dental and mental health screening within 12 hours of arriving at a detention facility, ICE said, adding that they also have access to 24-hour emergency care.
Immigration authorities have said that Hernandez was on May 17 admitted to Cibola General Hospital in Grants, New Mexico. She was later that day transferred to the Albuquerque hospital, where she remained in the intensive care unit until she was pronounced dead.
Hospital staff said the preliminary cause of death was cardiac arrest.
Between 2005 and 2009, Hernandez twice illegally entered the US and was allowed to voluntarily return to Mexico because she claimed Mexican nationality, immigration authorities said.
Central American migrants often claim to be Mexicans so that they will not be transported back to their country of origin.
In 2014, Hernandez illegally re-entered the US a third time, and was arrested and removed, authorities said, adding that she was convicted of theft in 2006 and of prostitution and other charges in 2009.
Those cases were in Texas.
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