Less than two weeks after entering Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, a transgender asylum-seeker died in a hospital.
Now, an independent autopsy says that 33-year-old Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez — a transgender woman who was HIV-positive and died of untreated dehydration — had signs of physical abuse that likely happened while she was in ICE custody, according to The Daily Beast.
An ICE news release, which referred to Hernandez by her given male name, said she first was taken into ICE custody on May 13 as she tried to apply for asylum. Hernandez, who was from Honduras, was placed in the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, New Mexico, on May 16.
The next day, Hernandez fell ill “with symptoms of pneumonia, dehydration and complications associated with HIV,” the ICE release says. She was sent to Cibola General Hospital, and then airlifted to the Lovelace Medical Center, where she died on May 25.
The Transgender Law Center, which ordered the autopsy, announced that it will file a wrongful death lawsuit against New Mexico.
“Roxsana was shackled for a long time and very tightly, enough to cause deep bruising on her wrists,” Lynly Egyes, director of litigation for the Transgender Law Center, told NBC San Diego. “She had deep bruising injuries consistent with physical abuse with a baton.”
But in a statement to The San Diego Union-Tribune, ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett denied the accusations of abuse.
“Allegations that she was abused in ICE custody are false,” Bennett told the newspaper. “A review of Hernandez’s death conducted by ICE Health Service Corps medical professionals confirmed that she suffered from a history of untreated HIV. At no time did the medical personnel treating Ms. Hernandez at Cibola General Hospital or Lovelace Medical Center raise any issues of suspected physical abuse.”
In its May press release, ICE also said Hernandez had entered the country illegally three times in the past — but twice left voluntarily. The third time, ICE says, she was “arrested, processed and removed (on) March 11, 2014.”
Hernandez had reached the Mexico-U.S. border this May as a part of a caravan, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune. She was waiting at the San Ysidro port of entry, the newspaper reported, and officials brought her into the U.S. on May 9 for the asylum process before she was taken into ICE custody a few days later.
In an interview with Buzzfeed News, Hernandez explained why she escaped her home country of Honduras in hopes of a better life.
“I didn’t want to come to Mexico — I wanted to stay in Honduras but I couldn’t,” Hernandez said, according to Buzzfeed News. “They kill trans people in Honduras. I’m scared of that.”
She said a group of four MS-13 gang members once raped her while calling her homophobic slurs.
“Four of them raped me and as a result I got HIV,” Hernandez told BuzzFeed News. “Trans people in my neighborhood are killed and chopped into pieces, then dumped inside potato bags.”
The average life expectancy for a transgender woman in North and South America is between 30 to 35 years, according to a report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Among all members of the LGBT community, younger transgender women are at most risk for violence, the report notes.
Forensic pathologist Kris Sperry wrote in the autopsy that Hernandez likely died from “severe complications of dehydration superimposed upon HIV infection,” The Daily Beast reported.
Sperry also reported finding “deep bruising” that was “indicative of blows, and/or kicks, and possible strikes with blunt object” on Hernandez — and that other detainees say officials ignored her deteriorating health as she was being taken to the detention center in New Mexico, according to The Daily Beast.
“According to observations of other detainees who were with Ms. Hernández Rodriguez,” he wrote, “the diarrhea and vomiting episodes persisted over multiple days with no medical evaluation or treatment, until she was gravely ill.”
A letter sent to the state of New Mexico from the Transgender Law Center says that “forensic evidence indicates she was handcuffed so tightly as to cause deep tissue bruising and struck repeatedly on the back and rib cage by an (ASP baton) or similar instrument while her hands were restrained behind her back,” according to KPBS.
For Jerome Jones, an LGBT activist, Hernandez’s death shows the struggles facing the transgender community, according to NBC San Diego.
“The government doesn’t look at us like human beings; they see these different labels,” Jones told the outlet. “Treat us as human beings first. Roxsana was a human being, a sister to all of us.
“To come here at the border and then face the military, to lose your life trying to escape to a better life is not a fair payment.”