Family of Trans Woman Who Died After Six Weeks in ICE Custody Plans to Sue

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty

Johana Medina Leon, 25, died earlier this month after spending six weeks in ICE custody. Medina Leon, who was from El Salvador, was seeking asylum in the U.S. due to discrimination she faced as a trans woman in her home country. She was found unconscious by ICE officials at the end of May, and died at a hospital in El Paso, TX four days later. Because ICE officially released Medina Leon from custody the day she was admitted to the hospital, they won’t have to conduct a review of her death.

Now, Medina Leon’s family intends to sue ICE for allegedly violating her civil rights, according to NBC. The family filed wrongful death and personal injury claims as a precursor to a lawsuit.

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According to her family, Medina Leon became ill while she was kept at Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico. They say she requested healthcare but was repeatedly denied.

ICE denied NBC’s request for comment, saying it does not comment on pending litigation, but that the lack of response “should not be construed as an agreement with or stipulation to any of the allegations.”

In response to Leon’s death, ICE released a statement that seemed to blame migrants for their own deaths in custody.

“This is yet another unfortunate example of an individual who illegally enters the United States with an untreated, unscreened medical condition,” Corey A. Price, field office director for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations in El Paso, said in a statement. He added, “many of these aliens attempt to enter the United States with untreated or unknown diseases, which are not diagnosed until they are examined while in detention.”

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But Medina Leon was a nurse in El Salvador, and she was aware of her own health needs. According to the claim against ICE, she requested IV fluids and was denied, and then asked for water, sugar, and salt to make her own solution.

Medina Leon’s family is alleging that her trans identity “played an active role in the denial of her rights and mistreatment.” Before her death, she was held in an all-male facility despite her gender identity.

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The family’s lawyer, Chris Dolan, implies that ICE transferred Medina Leon to the hospital to wash their hands of her.

“What they did is they transported her to a hospital to absolve themselves of responsibility,” he told NBC. He claims that when Medina Leon got sick, she requested that she be deported so she could seek help.

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“To say that as a nurse she didn’t disclose her medical condition is insane,” he added.

Medina Leon’s death came near the one-year anniversary of another trans woman’s death in ICE custody. Roxsana Hernandez died in 2018 of a rare, AIDS-related illness while detained by ICE. Medina Leon was also HIV positive.

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Otero County Processing Center, where Medina Leon was kept, has been specifically criticized for mistreatment of LGBTQ detainees. Lawyers claimed in a letter in March that LGBTQ detainees there were subject to “rampant sexual harassment, discrimination and abuse.”

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