Weeks before Johana Medina Leon died of pneumonia in a Texas hospital, the asylum seeker from El Salvador had requested medical treatment while detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
ICE employees ignored those requests, according to a $10 million claim that attorneys for Medina’s family filed Tuesday against the agency and the Department of Homeland Security, which alleges that a lack of medical care ultimately led to Medina’s death June 1.
The claim, filed by the Dolan Law Firm in San Francisco on behalf of the family, also alleges federal immigration agents discriminated against Medina, 25, for being transgender.
“Her gender identity and status as a transgender person played an active role in the denial of her rights and mistreatment,” the claim said.
The government declined to comment Wednesday.
“As a matter of policy, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not comment on pending litigation,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement. “However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement with or stipulation to any of the allegations.”
The government has six months to respond to the claim, the law firm said. The family plans to sue if the claim is rejected.
Medina’s death renewed immigration advocates’ charges that transgender inmates are often discriminated against, endure poor living conditions and have difficulty obtaining medical care while in ICE detention.
“She was belittled and she was kept in detention rather than being paroled like many people would be under the same circumstances, and then denied medical care to the point where she was asking to be deported,” said Chris Dolan, who filed the claim.
Medina, a nurse, fled El Salvador in December after being threatened with violence because she is transgender, according to Dolan. She presented herself to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials at a crossing in El Paso on April 11 and requested asylum.
An asylum officer found her fear of persecution in El Salvador to be credible, and she was detained pending a court hearing, according to Dolan.
Medina’s family said Customs and Border Protection agents questioned her transgender status because she had male genitalia and housed her with male inmates. The agency said Wednesday it does not comment on litigation.
Medina was sent to the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico, a private detention facility, where her health rapidly deteriorated, according to the claim.
“Having been trained and employed as a nurse in El Salvador, she recognized that she needed IV fluids but her request for treatment was denied,” the claim said. “She asked for water, sugar and salt so she could prepare her own IV but that request too was denied.”
Her conditioned worsened, and Medina ultimately asked to be deported to El Salvador so she could receive adequate care, the claim alleges. While requests to self-deport are common, the process can take months, according to advocates. Medina remained in custody.
On May 15, Medina appeared before a U.S. magistrate to present her case for asylum. She was told she’d receive a decision in eight days and was returned to the ICE detention facility.
Less than 10 days later, she was found unconscious and was taken by ICE to an El Paso hospital, where she died of pneumonia June 1.
“We never imagined this would happen,” Medina’s sister, Rocio Leon, said at a news conference.
Medina’s death comes one year after the death of Roxsana Hernandez, a transgender asylum seeker from Honduras who died in ICE custody of cardiac arrest and complications from HIV.
An independent autopsy revealed signs that Hernandez was abused and neglected while in ICE custody, according to her family. The agency has contested the allegations.
“For nearly one year, we have been demanding justice for Roxsana … but unfortunately, these deaths keep happening,” said Lynly Egyes of the Transgender Law Center.