Independent Autopsy of Transgender Asylum-Seeker Who Died in ICE Custody Shows Signs of Abuse
Posted November 27, 2018 10:23 p.m. EST
A transgender woman who died in the custody of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency appeared to have been physically abused before her death in May from dehydration, along with complications from HIV, according to an independent autopsy released this week.
The finding in the death of the woman, Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez, 33, who was Honduran and had joined a migrant caravan seeking asylum in the United States, supported ICE’s determination of her cause of death. Still, the conclusion that she was abused raised questions about her treatment during the 16 days she was held. ICE has maintained that she was not abused in its custody.
Other detainees cited in the autopsy report recall Hernandez experiencing the symptoms of severe dehydration “over multiple days with no medical evaluation or treatment, until she was gravely ill,” the report says.
Hernandez crossed the border at the San Ysidro port of entry between San Diego and Tijuana on May 9, according to ICE. She died May 25 at a hospital in New Mexico.
The independent autopsy was performed by Dr. Kris Sperry, a forensic pathologist hired by the Transgender Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights group that is suing ICE on behalf of Hernandez.
Sperry found that while there was no evidence of bruising on her skin, there was deep hemorrhaging of the soft tissues and muscles over her ribs.
The first autopsy of Hernandez was conducted by the New Mexico medical examiner’s office on behalf of ICE and has not been released. ICE said that, about a week before her death, she had been taken to a hospital with symptoms of pneumonia, dehydration and complications associated with HIV.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement cannot speak to the validity of the private autopsy,” Danielle Bennett, a spokeswoman for ICE, said in a statement. “However, allegations that she was abused in ICE custody are false.”
Hernandez arrived May 16 at the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, New Mexico, where she was detained in the transgender unit, according to ICE. The next day, she was taken to Cibola General Hospital and then transferred by air ambulance to Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque, where she stayed in intensive care until she died. ICE recorded the preliminary cause of death as cardiac arrest.
“They took her and we would wait for her to come back every day,” said Marbeli Bustillo, 23, a fellow asylum-seeker who met Hernandez in the “hielera,” or “ice boxes,” where people crossing the border are held before they are processed by ICE, and who was held along with Hernandez at the Cibola County Correctional Center.
“We wondered every day where they might have put her, why we didn’t see her anymore,” Bustillo added in a phone interview from Boston, where she moved after gaining asylum. “We never saw her again after the doctor took her.”
In the past, transgender women detained by ICE were held with male detainees. In 2015, the agency established new guidelines for detaining transgender women because of how vulnerable they are in detention centers. There has also been a spike in the number of openly LGBT people from Central American countries and Mexico seeking asylum in the United States because of the violence they often face in their home countries.
“Her death was entirely preventable,” Lynly Egyes, the Transgender Law Center’s director of litigation, said at a news conference. “In the final days of her life, she was transferred from California to Washington to New Mexico, shackled for days on end. If she was lucky, she was given a bottle of water to drink. Her cause of death was dehydration and complications related to HIV.”
The independent autopsy was likely to face scrutiny over Sperry’s credibility. He was the chief medical examiner for the state of Georgia until 2015, when he stepped down after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that he had taken on hundreds of private cases while working for the state.
“We decided to go with Dr. Sperry because he’s good at his job,” said Andrew Free, an immigration and civil rights lawyer who is representing the Hernandez family.
The Cibola County Correctional Center is operated by CoreCivic, one of the largest operators of private prisons in the country with revenues last year of $1.8 billion. Privately operated prisons have been under scrutiny for their handling of immigrant detainees, especially migrant children.
“We take the health and well-being of those entrusted to our care very seriously,” Rodney King, a spokesman for CoreCivic, said in a statement. “We’re also committed to providing a safe environment for transgender detainees.”
Hernandez sought asylum from persecution, discrimination and violence, according to Edgar Reyes, 19, who met Hernandez in Tijuana while they were in the caravan.
“You could see the suffering she was running from on her face,” Reyes said. “She would share her struggles with all of us. We were always united, we always supported each other, and I understood her because I am a gay man, and Honduran like she was.”
According to ICE, Hernandez illegally crossed the border into the United States twice between 2005 and 2009. In April 2006, she was convicted of theft in Dallas, the agency said. In May 2009, she was convicted of lewd, immoral, indecent conduct and prostitution, also in Dallas, according to ICE. Both times she was deported, Hernandez was allowed to voluntarily return to Mexico because she claimed Mexican nationality to immigration officials.
In January 2014, she entered the United States a third time before being arrested and deported two months later.
This time, Hernandez wanted to settle down, Bustillo said.
“She would tell me she wanted to get married, work a blue-collar job and be a different person this time,” Bustillo said. “This time around she had a dream.” Hernandez spoke to friends about wanting to see her brother, who lived in Houston.
“She would talk about her brother every day,” Bustillo said. “It is a big deal to be trans and accepted by your family, and he didn’t accept her, but he wasn’t going to kick her out of his house. He tolerated her.”
Hernandez was known by her friends who traveled through Central America and Mexico with her as a humble, sincere person who loved to sing along to the Mexican bands Los Temerarios and Los Bukis, and as someone who had great taste in makeup.
The independent autopsy hinted at that attention to personal care, detailing the remnants of glittery rose-colored polish on Hernandez’s toenails.
“When we traveled, she was always concerned about her coffee-colored makeup bag,” Bustillo said. “The last time I remember talking to her before we crossed the border, I asked her to let me borrow her eyeliner.”
She added: “I gave her back the eyeliner. I never got to use it.”