Three Democratic US senators and the ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security have sent letters to the heads of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) demanding answers after a transgender woman died in US custody while seeking asylum from Honduras.
Senators Kamala Harris of California and Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, and Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi are seeking a full review of the death of Roxsana Hernandez. An independent autopsy of Hernandez showed injuries consistent with abuse during the time leading up to her death on May 25.
The senators, in their December 5 letter, requested that Ronald D. Vitiello, the acting director of ICE, and Kevin K. McAleenan, the commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, release “full and complete death review and supporting documentation on Roxsana Hernandez” to the public.
The senators blasted ICE for being “uncooperative” in releasing information about the case, which they say “violates congressional requirements” stipulating that an initial report on in-custody deaths be provided within 30 days.
Months later, a report on Hernandez’s death has still not been released.
“ICE’s failure to release this report diminishes the systemic, traumatic, and in this case fatal, violence that transgender individuals experience daily as a result of their gender identity,” the senators wrote.
Thompson, in his letter December 7, noted that there have been 11 deaths at adult immigration detention centers this year, which he says raise “serious questions about the treatment of individuals in ICE custody, particularly especially vulnerable individuals and, more broadly, about your agency’s oversight of contract detention facilities.”
Hernandez was being held at the Cibola County Correctional Center, a private prison for men that operates under a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), when the diarrhea and vomiting she was experiencing forced her transfer to Lovelace Medical Center in nearby Albuquerque. She died in the intensive care unit at Lovelace.
The senators are also asking for documentation and accounting of specific training provided to officers, agents, and private contractors related to the safety of transgender people in their care.
In a written statement to Gay City News last month, ICE spokesperson Danielle Bennett said allegations that Hernandez was abused are “false.”
A wrongful death claim filed last month by the Transgender Law Center and civil rights attorney Andrew Free claimed that Hernandez did not receive necessary medical treatment while in custody. Free said at the time that his team would be filing an additional lawsuit if federal agencies did not hand over documents pertaining to Hernandez’s death.
The Democratic senators, who will remain in the minority in the new session of Congress that opens in January, could face limitations on their ability to investigate the case. However, with Democrats taking back the House of Representatives, Thompson, who will assume the gavel at the Homeland Security Committee, is well positioned to follow up on the Hernandez case.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who is vying to return to her previous role as speaker, could not be reached for a comment on how the Democrats plan to address issues surrounding the safety of LGBTQ immigrants held in federal custody.