Democratic Senators Demand a Special Counsel Investigation on a Transgender Woman Who Died in ICE Custody

Two Democratic Senators are demanding a special counsel investigation into the death of a transgender woman who died in Immigration and Enforcement Custody (ICE) last year.

California senator and presidential hopeful Kamala Harris (D) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) announced on November 1 that they sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr to demand a special counsel investigation into the death of Roxsana Hernandez, a transgender woman who died while she was in ICE custody in May 2018.

Quick facts about Roxsana Hernandez

  • Hernandez was 33-years-old when she reached the U.S. at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in California seeking asylum on May 9, 2018, according toICE. She was held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in California until May 13, 2018, when she was transferred to San Luis Regional Detention Center in Yuma, Arizona.

  • She was then transferred two more times before being taken to Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, New York, on May 16, 2018. The following day, she was taken to Cibola General Hospital where she later died on May 25, 2018, just a little over two weeks after she arrived in the U.S.

  • Before her death, Hernandez had told the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) officials “that she was living with untreated HIV and experiencing significant illness, including cough and fever,” according to a lawsuit that was filed by the Transgender Law Center (TLC) in June. In the official autopsy conducted in April 2018, it stated Hernandez had died of HIV complications, NBC News previously reported.

  • In November 2018, an independent autopsy found that Hernandez had suffered from physical abuse before her death from hydration, along with HIV complications,The New York Times reported.

What You Should Know

The senator’s letter comes just days after the TLC stated that footage that might have revealed key evidence surrounding her death were deleted by ICE.

“The American people deserve answers for what happened to Ms. Hernandez, and members of Congress have sought those answers. The need for answers is all the more acute in light of other deaths in U.S. custody, including the deaths of transgender individuals, and reports of insufficient medical care at U.S. facilities, including ICE facilities,” the senators wrote in the letter. “We now need answers as to why that footage was not preserved. Any policies in need of reform must be examined. And any individuals that acted wrongfully must be held accountable.”

The TLC wrote in the Detainee Death Review, a video existed of Hernandez’s time at Cibola County Correctional Center. In an email exchange between ICE headquarters and ICE Albuquerque with TLC, the video was reportedly viewed by those who prepared the review. Although the records were received, TLC, who represents Hernandez’s family, did not see the video and learned it had been deleted.

“How can ICE and CoreCivic claim any kind of transparency when they withheld video footage during an active investigation,” Andrew Free, one of the attorneys, said in a statement. “They were on notice to preserve any and all video surveillance and it seems they may have failed to do so. We filed suit because we have reason to believe they may be withholding more evidence. The public has the right to know what happened to people who die in the custody of the U.S. government and CoreCivic is not above the law.”

What Can Be Done

Eunice Cho, the senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project, told The North Star that immigrants who are dying in ICE custody should be a concern for everyone and that these deaths are preventable.

These are people who are being locked up while they are waiting for their immigration proceedings and we know that some of the reviews of other deaths that have happened in ICE facilities is that these deaths are often preventable and are the result of subpar, dangerous medical practices, unreasonable delays and botched emergency responses,” Cho said.

Cho also noted that this is not the first time the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has deleted and hid important documents and videos, mentioning a court order that was issued torelease photos and videos of the harsh conditions at the Arizona Border Patrol Detention Facilities in 2016.

“I think the fact that ICE had deleted the video of Roxsana Hernandez’s death really raises red flags when it comes to accountability and transparency with respect to their treatment of people in custody,” Cho told TNS. “This is an alarming practice that DHS has engaged in, especially with respect to the need for oversight of federal facilities and facilities that are paid for by taxpayer dollars.”

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About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.