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A Transgender Woman Died After Being Held For Weeks In ICE Custody

The 25-year-old died Saturday at a hospital after complaining about chest pain.

Posted on June 3, 2019, at 8:18 p.m. ET

Diversidad Sin Fronteras / Via Facebook: diversidadsinfronteraz

Johana Medina.

A transgender woman from El Salvador who was held by US immigration authorities died Saturday, four days after she was released from custody and taken to a hospital.

Johana Medina Leon, 25, died at the Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, after being detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement for seven weeks. Medina, who was seeking asylum in the US, was taken to the hospital on May 28 after complaining of chest pains. That same day ICE said it had reviewed her case and released her from its detention on parole.

Medina presented herself to US Customs and Border Protection at the Paso Del Norte port of entry in El Paso on April 11. She was processed for expedited removal, a deportation process that allows an immigration official to deport someone without seeing a judge, when she applied for admission to enter the US.

“This is yet another unfortunate example of an alien who enters the United States with an untreated, unscreened medical condition,” said Corey Price, field office director for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations in El Paso.

On April 14, Medina was transferred to Otero County Processing Center, a private detention facility for ICE detainees. Over a month later, on May 18, she received a positive credible fear finding, a crucial first step in the asylum process, and was given a notice to appear before an immigration judge on May 22.

Medina asked to be tested for HIV on May 28 and received a positive result. That same day she was taken to Del Sol Medical Center due to chest pains.

OJ Pitaya, an advocate with Diversidad Sin Fronteras, an LGBT human rights organization, said Medina waited nearly three months in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, for the opportunity to request asylum from the US at an official border crossing.

When she presented herself to Border Patrol agents, Pitaya said, Medina was told "she was not trans" and that "she was a man."

Medina was a certified nurse in El Salvador, but wasn't able to practice because she was living openly as a transgender woman, Pitaya said.

"Her dream was to come to the US to get certified and make a living healing people," Pitaya said in a Facebook post.

From April 11 to about May 23, her health deteriorated, Pitaya said. On multiple occasions she told staff at the Otero County Processing Center that "she needed an (IV) solution, that she could do it herself but she just needed the medication."

Her death comes days after the one-year anniversary of the death of Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez, a transgender woman who traveled to the US in a migrant caravan and died in ICE custody. A New Mexico medical investigator's autopsy found that the 33-year-old died from Castleman disease due to AIDS.

In December, a group of Democratic senators demanded that immigration authorities release documents on Hernández's case. The senators argued that officials had violated congressional reporting requirements by not making the documents public.

Luc Forsyth / Luc Forsyth for BuzzFeed News

Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez in April 2018.

ICE is required by Congress to report the death of any migrants in its custody within 30 days and make public a final report within 60 days. Because Medina was released from ICE custody the same day she was sent to the hospital, her death is not considered in-custody.

In March, advocacy groups sent a letter to ICE demanding a meeting with officials and an investigation into "rampant sexual harassment, medical neglect, and retaliation against transgender women and gay men" at the Otero County Processing Center, where Medina was held. The detention center is operated by Management and Training Corporation in Chaparral, New Mexico.

"When the women and men have submitted requests for medical care, including mental health care, they report that Otero takes days, if not weeks, to respond to them," said the letter written by the ACLU of New Mexico, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, and the Santa Fe Dreamers Project.

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