LGBTQ advocates announced today that they will be pursuing a wrongful death claim on behalf of the family of a transgender asylum seeker from Honduras who they say was abused before dying in federal immigration custody.
At a press conference Monday in San Diego, the Transgender Law Center (TLC), the Black LGBTQ+ Migrant Project (BLMP), Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, and the law office of R. Andrew Free announced that they filed a Notice of Wrongful Death Tort Claim in New Mexico on behalf of Roxsana Hernández. The claim essentially puts government entities on notice that advocates will soon file a wrongful death lawsuit against the state of New Mexico, the first step in what will likely be a years-long process “to get justice for Roxsana and her family,” said Anna Castro, a media consultant with the Transgender Law Center.
Hernández was detained by federal immigration authorities on May 13 after arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a “migrant caravan” of approximately 1,500 people. She was one of several dozen trans women in the caravan who were fleeing persecution in their countries of origin. While in federal immigration custody, Hernández reportedly spent five days in what many migrants call Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) “hieleras,” or “ice boxes,” holding facilities known for their frigid temperatures. By this time, according to advocates, Hernández had already shown “signs of medical distress,” including HIV-related complications and pneumonia, Flor Bermudez, the legal director of TLC, told the Guardian in May after Hernández’s death.
According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which used Hernández’s former name when publishing the details of her death, the Honduran asylum seeker was admitted to Cibola General Hospital on May 17 “with symptoms of pneumonia, dehydration, and complications associated with HIV.” Later that day, she was transferred via air ambulance to Lovelace Medical Center (LMC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she remained in the intensive care unit until she died on May 25. According to ICE, the 33-year-old’s preliminary cause of death was cardiac arrest.
At Monday’s press conference, advocates revealed previously unknown details surrounding Hernández’s death.
“According to an independent autopsy report, Ms. Hernandez endured physical assault and abuse while in custody,” according to the wrongful death tort claim. “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 or similar instrument while her hands were restrained behind her back.”
Lynly Egyes, TLC’s director of litigation, said in a statement that the autopsy report by an independent board-certified forensic pathologist suggests Hernández was “shackled for a long time and very tightly, enough to cause deep bruising on her wrists.”
“In the final days of her life, she was transferred from California to Washington to New Mexico, shackled for days on end. If she was lucky, she was given a bottle of water to drink,” Egyes said. “Her cause of death was dehydration and complications related to HIV. Her death was entirely preventable.”
Castro said that learning the details surrounding Hernández’s death has been an “ordeal.” Federal immigration agencies have failed to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and ICE “even has custody of a person’s body when they pass in their custody and that remains the case until the agency says otherwise.” Advocates worked with Hernández’s family and the Honduran consulate to ensure Hernández’s family received her body for burial.
“Her family had a lot of questions about what happened and what led to her death. They wanted an autopsy,” Castro said, further explaining that ICE only does a “visual autopsy.” When advocates informed the federal immigration agency they would be doing an independent, in-depth autopsy, ICE reportedly moved forward with one of their own. ICE has not shared the results of their autopsy with Hernández’s family.
News of Hernández’s alleged abuse comes on the heels of a tumultuous day at the Mexican border. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) closed the San Ysidro Port of Entry, one of the world’s busiest border crossings, for several hours Sunday after “a peaceful march by Central American migrants” erupted into chaos, with Border Patrol agents firing tear gas at the migrants, including young children.
Just before the midterm elections, President Donald Trump created more chaos at the border with an executive order that attempted to block people from seeking asylum. He also deployed thousands of military troops to the southwest border—and even authorized them to use lethal force—only to have them withdrawn after the election, around the same time the caravan of asylum seekers was expected to arrive at the border.
The first members to arrive in Tijuana earlier this month were LGBTQ asylum seekers, who splintered off from the larger group because of abuse and harassment they said they experienced both from Mexican citizens and other members of the caravan.
Castro told Rewire.News that the Transgender Law Center and other organizations behind the tort claim are working to support queer and trans people migrating to the United States, ensuring they have a “fair shot” at asylum, and monitoring abuses they are “likely to experience” in federal custody.
“They are facing really dire consequences, especially Black LGBTQ migrants like Udoka Nweke,” Castro said.
Nweke is a gay asylum seeker who arrived at the San Ysidro port of entry in December 2016 after his life was threatened in his native Nigeria and his partner was killed. As Rewire.News reported in June, he attempted suicide while detained at California’s deadly Adelanto detention facility. Nweke has since been released, but said his treatment in detention was akin to “torture.”
As Rewire.News reported, trans women like Hernández are fleeing Honduras for a multitude of reasons. The United States’ foreign policy in Central America has played a large part in destabilizing the Northern Triangle countries and causing mass migration, and this is especially true in Honduras. The country’s government has been plagued by corruption and conditions have worsened since a 2009 military coup. The ensuing increase in militarization has led to widespread allegations of abuse at the hands of soldiers, including arbitrary detentions, murder, torture, and rape.
Violence against trans women has also skyrocketed. A global study found that Honduras has the highest numbers of transgender murders relative to population size. Rihanna Ferrera Sanchez, the leader of La Asociación de Derechos Humanos Cozumel Trans, an advocacy organization that fights for the rights of transgender people in Honduras, told Rewire.News that friends of hers have been murdered in “horribly violent” ways: some stoned to death, some strangled, and some simply “disappeared,” never heard from or seen again.
Castro said there seems to be a “general lack of interest” in what happens to LGBTQ migrants, and the advocacy organizations supporting Hernández’s family in its quest for justice are looking to build longterm relationships with organizers in Central America. For now, however, they are working to “hold everyone responsible for Roxsana’s death accountable.”
In a statement shared with Rewire.News, Hernández’s sisters in Honduras described the nature of her death as an “injustice.” She fled Honduras because of the discrimination she experienced, they said, and she had dreams of one day opening a beauty salon and being able to help her family.
“They cut her life short and she was not able to fulfill her dreams. For us, her closest family, it’s been extremely painful to deal with,” Hernández’s sisters said in a statement. “It’s difficult to accept that she was taken from us because of negligence, because of not giving her support and medication that she needed, because they treated her like an animal. It’s not fair. It’s not fair that she fled Honduras looking for a better life and instead she was killed. Now all we have left with is the hope that we can see justice for her.”