Abuse and Injustice at the Southern Border
Written by Jessica Lynn Nichols
The U.S. government enables transphobic violence. ICE is no exception.
On March 31st, the last day of Women’s History Month, we will recognize the Transgender Day of Visibility. The intersection of these occasions should serve as a reminder of the intersectionality of our activism. Feminism must be inclusive of all women. That means educating ourselves about the struggles within diverse communities. Year after year, human rights activists have recorded that trans women of color are the group most impacted by transphobic violence. They experience the intersection of transphobia, misogyny and racism, which not only makes them the target of hate crimes, but also of institutionalized discrimination. The Human Rights Campaign has reported that trans people experience homelessness and poverty at far higher rates than their cisgender peers. Both of these are contributing factors to other dangerous circumstances. Trans people are more likely to need medical care as the result of hate crimes, as well as chronic conditions such as HIV/AIDS, but they are less likely to receive this care because of inability to pay for it, or even outright discrimination from medical professionals. All of these issues are exacerbated for trans women of color, including Black and Latina women.
As in many cases throughout history, the legal system is not yet an accurate reflection of justice. In countless cases, murderers have received light sentences mitigated by the argument that they only killed a trans woman in self-defense from a sexual threat. Nor are our federal agencies held accountable. While Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) abuses the undocumented people in their custody, the Trump-Pence administration continues to claim that ICE is acting in the best interests of U.S. national security. There is no justification for ICE’s actions, which have contributed to illnesses and deaths of those detained - including children. Any violation of human rights on this scale should be cause for outcry throughout the year. As we reflect this month on the history of women’s rights and our continuing strides towards equality, we must continue to call attention to the scope of the abuse by ICE, which has resulted in the deaths of at least two transgender women.
Johana Medina Leon came to the United States in spring 2019, with hopes of becoming a registered nurse. She could not achieve her goal in her home country of El Salvador because of the transphobia she faced. When she arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, she was detained by ICE agents. Medina Leon was held for several months, CNN reports, before testing positive for HIV at the end of May. Shortly after ICE released her, she died in the hospital. She was 25 years old.
Medina Leon died one year following another death reported by the Human Rights Campaign. Roxana Hernández was an asylum seeker from Honduras who fled the discrimination in her home country and came to the U.S. for safety. In May 2018, she died in ICE custody. NBC News later reported on the official autopsy, which cited untreated HIV/AIDS as the cause of her death. The autopsy also identified bruising on Hernández’s chest and fractures to her ribs. The New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator concluded that her injuries likely resulted from attempts to save her life through CPR. After a second, independent, autopsy by pathologist Dr. Kris Sperry, activists at the Transgender Law Center have argued that the injuries are signs of abuse. ICE has denied these claims.
Months later, there is still no full explanation for the deaths of either of these women.
Months later, there is still no full explanation for the deaths of either of these women. With so little public access to evidence, it cannot be known for certain whether they were physically abused by ICE officials. However, there is substantial evidence that neither Medina Leon nor Hernández received the care necessary for people with HIV, and that this neglect was a contributing factor in both of their deaths.
This is far from the full extent of transphobia in the immigration policy of the Trump-Pence administration. Like Medina Leon and Hernández, many LGBTQ+ immigrants are asylum seekers. Donald Trump has publicly questioned the validity of asylum claims in general, and his administration has significantly narrowed the nature of claims that can be recognized as a reason to be granted asylum. In a report on all of the transphobic actions by this administration to date, the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) notes former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision in 2018 to no longer consider gang violence and domestic violence as legitimate cases for asylum. The impact of this policy is certainly not exclusive to trans women like Medina Leon and Hernández—anyone, regardless of background, can be a target of gangs or a survivor of abuse—but it is understandable that the NCTE included it on their list. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Refugee Agency, found in 2016 that nearly 90 percent of Central American asylum seekers who are LGBTQ+ reported experiencing discriminatory violence while living in their home countries. The fact that asylum seekers choose to leave their homes in hopes of escaping oppression, only to experience further discrimination and violence from a U.S. agency, is appalling.
We cannot tolerate this cruelty from any entity and must refuse to reelect any politician who continues to defend it. No person, group or government should have the power to inflict violence as an instrument of oppression without facing consequences. ICE has to be held accountable, as does every official involved in this policy of detainment, separation and abuse. Women’s History Month honors the legacy of the struggle for freedom and equality. If we do nothing to fight unjust policy, we will fall short of that legacy.