Federal immigration officials were asked to retain footage of a transgender detainee 10 days after her death — yet roughly three months later they said it no longer existed, according to a new internal email reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
The video of 33-year-old Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez, who died in US custody on May 25, 2018, was requested by an investigative division of ICE as part of a review into her death. In the June 4, 2018, email, an analyst with ICE's Office of Professional Responsibility requested a number of records related to Hernández's death, including footage of her time at the Cibola County Correctional Center (CCCC) in Milan, New Mexico, on May 16–17.
"Please archive and retain all facility video surveillance footage," the analyst asked, with the word "all" underlined.
However, in late August 2018, 95 days after Hernández's death, ICE officials said in emails previously reported by BuzzFeed News that the footage was "no longer available," suggesting it was because surveillance video is only kept for about 90 days.
Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris and Richard Blumenthal have sent a letter to the Justice Department demanding a special counsel investigation into whether immigration authorities broke the law by failing to preserve the video footage.
Dale Melchert, a staff attorney at the Transgender Law Center, which is representing Hernández’s family, said that despite the emails he's hopeful the surveillance footage still exists.
"It's completely ridiculous to suggest they didn't know they were supposed to preserve critical video footage — the most basic thing you do when there's some type of investigation, or you expect to be sued," Melchert told BuzzFeed News.
The video would help fill in gaps and discrepancies missing from ICE documents, Melchert said, noting the recently published footage of Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, who died in Border Patrol custody. ProPublica published cellblock video of the 16-year-old Guatemalan immigrant writhing on the floor and concrete bench before staggering to a toilet and collapsing on the floor until another child saw him four and a half hours later. The video contradicts CBP statements that an agent checked on him three times while the teen was unconscious and how his body was found.
The New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator said Hernández's cause of death was multicentric Castleman disease due to complications of AIDS.
The Transgender Law Center alleges Hernandez died due to lack of adequate medical treatment and mistreatment while in immigration custody. The law office filed an administrative claim last month against DHS, CBP, and ICE in preparation for filing a wrongful death lawsuit against the federal government.
ICE did not respond to a request for comment, but has said it does not comment on pending litigation. But the federal tort claim filed on Nov. 25 includes documents that shed more light on the last days of Hernández's life.
The Honduran native requested asylum on May 9, 2018, at the San Ysidro port of entry that connects San Diego to Tijuana. Hernández had traveled to the border as part of a caravan of Central American immigrants in the spring of 2018 that drew President Donald Trump's ire.
On May 11, 2018, a CBP officer conducted a credible fear interview with Hernández, a crucial first step in the asylum process. The agent asked why she left her country.
"I left because my life was threatened by the Maras gang," Hernández told the officer. "A group of Maras raped and tried to kill me. I was afraid for my life and I left Honduras."
An affidavit from another trans detainee who was held with Hernández said her health began deteriorating in Tijuana but got worse in detention due to the cold temperatures in holding cells, which immigrants call "iceboxes," and raw food they were given to eat. The unidentified detainee told attorneys that she and Hernández asked to see a doctor but weren't allowed to see one. It wasn't until the group from the caravan went on a lunch strike that they were allowed to see medical staff.
An internal ICE report into Hernández’s death reviewed by BuzzFeed News also found no indication that she was given antiretrovirals for HIV by Customs and Border Protection or ICE. According to ICE's detention standards, detainees living with HIV who have been transferred from one detention facility to another must be provided with a 30-day supply of medication. Hernández was taken to two detention facilities before arriving at the correctional center in Milan, New Mexico.
The ICE Health Service Corps's deputy medical director said hospitals do not generally initiate HIV therapy for a patient who has been diagnosed with significant medical issues and that Hernández wasn't in ICE custody long enough for an evaluation for proper treatment to take place.
At a detention center in San Luis, Arizona, while on route to CCCC — a private prison operated by CoreCivic — the group of women from the caravan asked for medical help for Hernández but were told by officers that they would only be there for 12 hours and for that reason wouldn't send her to see medical staff, according to the affidavit from the other trans detainee.
"Roxsana looked very tired and sick. She still had nasal drainage and cough," the detainee said.
When the group of women arrived at CCCC, witnesses said they requested medical attention for Hernández, but were told the doctor didn't arrive until the next morning. From 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. Hernández lay on the floor of a waiting area.
Hours later, after a doctor at CCCC saw Hernández, she was transferred to a hospital in Albuquerque, where she stayed until she died.
"Roxsana had the attitude of a survivor and it was very shocking to us how she became so sick so suddenly," said the trans woman who submitted the affidavit. "Her spirit and will to survive were so strong we could not believe she was gone."
CoreCivic said Hernández arrived at CCCC already gravely ill and was only at the correctional center for 12 hours. A doctor in ICE's review of Hernández's death said that by the time she arrived at CCCC, the actions taken were "too little, too late," possibly by as much as six months.
Andrew Free, an attorney working on Hernández’s case along with the Transgender Law Center, said that if ICE had given her a medical screening while it transferred her to different locations, it would have sent her to a hospital and she'd still be alive.