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Trans Immigrant Who Died in Federal Custody Was Abused, Activists Say

Roxsana Hernandez

A transgender asylum seeker who died while in the federal government’s custody in May was physically abused, and her death was preventable, according to LGBTQ and immigrant rights groups.

Roxsana Hernández (previous reports spelled her first name as Roxana) died May 25 while in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She had been held at the Cibola County Correctional Facility, a privately run prison in New Mexico, for several days before being transferred to a hospital. The official cause of death was complications of pneumonia and HIV, but civil rights groups have raised questions about how the 33-year-old Honduran was treated while in custody.

Now an autopsy has concluded that she suffered from physical abuse and dehydration, according to the Transgender Law Center, which funded the autopsy.

“An independent autopsy report reveals that Roxsana was shackled for a long time and very tightly, enough to cause deep bruising on her wrists,” said Lynly Egyes, TLC’s director of litigation, in a Monday press release. “She also had deep bruising Injuries consistent with physical abuse with a baton or asp while she was handcuffed, according to an examination of the tissue by an independent expert board-certified forensic pathologist. 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. Her cause of death was dehydration and complications related to HIV. Her death was entirely preventable.”

At the Cibola County prison, Hernández “developed severe diarrhea and vomiting over the course of several days,” forensic pathologist Kris Sperry wrote in the autopsy report, as quoted by The Daily Beast. She received “no medical evaluation or treatment until she was gravely ill,” Sperry continued.

 Hernández also had “deep bruising” on her hands and abdomen, which is “indicative of blows, and/or kicks, and possible strikes with a blunt object,” according to Sperry. The pathologist found that the cause of death was most likely “severe complications of dehydration superimposed upon HIV infection.”

TLC and lawyer Andrew Free said they have filed a notice of wrongful death tort claim in New Mexico. They were joined by Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project and Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, which have advocated for an end to detention for trans and queer migrants.

ICE contended that Hernández was not abused. “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) cannot speak to the validity of the private autopsy cited by The Daily Beast; however, allegations that she was abused in ICE custody are false,” ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett told the publication. “A review of Hernandez’s death conducted by ICE Health Service Corps medical professionals confirmed that she suffered from a history of untreated HIV. 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.

“ICE takes very seriously the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care, including those who come into ICE custody with prior medical conditions or who have never before received appropriate medical care. Any death that happens in ICE custody is a cause for concern, and the agency will continue its full review of this case according to standard protocols.”

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