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The first annual Trans Immigrants Day honors trans people who died too soon, and vows to fight like hell for the living. Launched by the organization Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, the first annual Trans Immigrants Day will take place May 31, preceded by a week of action beginning May 25 that includes banner drops, webinars about issues impacting trans immigrant communities, and a May 29 candlelight vigil in New York City honoring the life of Lorena Borjas, a trans immigrant activist who died March 30 of COVID-19. Borjas was a pillar in New York’s Queens community, where she helped trans women get tested for HIV, bailed out sex workers, and ran a nonprofit that helped provide legal representation to immigrants facing deportation.

According to Oluchi Omeoga, a national organizer with the Black LGBTQ+ Migrant Project (BLMP), an organization that works closely with Familia, too often the immigrants’ rights movement forgets about LGBTQ+ people—especially Black LGBTQ+ immigrants—and the LGBTQ+ movement treats undocumented immigrants as an afterthought, if it thinks of them at all. Organizations like Familia and BLMP are unapologetically centering LGBTQ+ immigrants and honor the leadership of trans immigrants.

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“What has been made very apparent to me, especially during the pandemic, is that in times of crisis, the most vulnerable and the most marginalized are left behind,” Omeoga said. “When COVID started, people scrambled—what are we going to fight for, what are we going to demand from ICE? Queer and trans immigrants were left out of that conversation; Black folks were left out of that conversation, and that’s just the case in these larger movements. It’s really disheartening to hear organizations say they have an intersectional framework, yet when things really heat up and become chaotic, they drop it. We need to embody these things every day, especially during a crisis. We mean it when we say we are trying to get to liberation.”

Jennicet Gutiérrez, an organizer with Familia, told Prism that the organization’s main priority is demanding justice for trans immigrant women and holding federal immigration agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) accountable when trans women die in detention.

In fact, Familia originally partnered with BLMP in 2018 for a week of action after the death of Roxsana Hernández, a Honduran asylum-seeker who died in ICE custody in May of that year. A little over a year later in June 2019, just a few weeks after Familia and BLMP wrapped up another week of action, the death of Johana Medina Leon became public. Medina Leon was a 25-year-old trans woman from El Salvador who entered federal immigration custody April 11, 2019. Seven weeks later, she died in a Texas hospital after ICE failed to provide her with adequate health care in detention.

Federal immigration agencies have a long history of abusing trans immigrants and denying them necessary health care. In 2007, Victoria Arellano became the first known trans woman to have died in ICE custody. Like Hernández and Medina Leon, 23-year-old Arellano was living with HIV/AIDS when ICE denied her the medication and health care she needed. A 2019 report from Amnesty International found that HIV-positive trans women are routinely denied medical care in federal immigration custody, a fact also confirmed by a 2016 Human Rights Watch report.

“Victoria, Roxsana, and Johana died under very inhumane conditions, conditions that continue today. I believe they were murdered by a system that does not appreciate or value our lives. This is what we are fighting against,” Gutiérrez said. “Trans Immigrants Day is about fighting for women like these, honoring them, and making sure that no more trans women die in detention. We continue to fight to end trans detention. We demand that all trans people get released from detention, and every day we are working to abolish ICE.”

For many trans immigrants, Hernández’s death in 2018 symbolized a grave milestone in the history of ICE, forcing them to organize in bold ways. Hernández was detained by federal immigration authorities on May 13, 2018, after arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border from Honduras as part of a “migrant caravan.” While in federal custody, Hernández reportedly spent five days in what migrants often call CBP’s “hieleras,” or “ice boxes,” holding facilities known for frigidly cold temperatures. According to ICE, Hernández was admitted to Cibola General Hospital on May 17 “with symptoms of pneumonia, dehydration, and complications associated with HIV.” Later that day, she was transferred via air ambulance to Lovelace Medical Center (LMC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she remained in the intensive care unit until she died on May 25.

Since November 2018, LGBTQ+ advocates have pursued a wrongful death claim on behalf of Hernández’s family because evidence suggests she was abused in ICE custody prior to her death. “According to an independent autopsy report, Ms. Hernandez endured physical assault and abuse while in custody,” according to the wrongful death tort claim.

In a more recent development, the Transgender Law Center (TLC), the Law Office of R. Andrew Free, and the Law Office of Daniel Yohalem filed a lawsuit earlier this month in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico against Management & Training Corporation, LaSalle Corrections Transport, Global Precision Systems, TransCor America, and CoreCivic, alleging “gross negligence” leading to the death of Hernández. All of the defendants are privately owned companies that contract with ICE to oversee the operation of the agency’s detention centers.

Youngers v. MTC, et al alleges the private companies failed to provide adequate medical care, sufficient food, water, access to a restroom, and an opportunity to sleep even though Hernández “was visibly and symptomatically ill,” according to a statement. Using Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the plaintiffs claim that failure to provide medical care and safe transport to Hernández “amounted to discrimination against her as a person who was living with HIV and needed medical assistance during transport.”

Nghia Nguyen, an activist and organizer based in Sacramento, California, told Prism she felt called to organize with Familia after Hernández’s death. Nguyen was one of the lead organizers behind the #JusticeForRoxsana action in front of an ICE building in Sacramento last year. On May 25, Nguyen will drop banners in a public place in Sacramento to commemorate Hernández’s short life and painful death.

“Monday May 25 is the two-year anniversary of Roxsana’s murder on ICE’s watch. [The banners] will be in a place where a lot of people will see and they will be forced to confront what happened to Roxsana and forced to hear our message, which is that ICE kills. The agency is a death machine,” Nguyen said. “The banner featuring Roxsana is beautiful, it has roses on it, which have a lot of symbolism for us trans folks. The radical trans activist Miss Major famously said, ‘Give us our roses while we’re still here.’ We want our ‘roses’ now—we want justice now, we want our rights and privileges and resources for survival now. Roxsana never got her roses.”

CORRECTION: A prior version of this article inaccurately suggested that the Black LGBTQ+ Migrant Project (BLMP) was involved in launching the week of action. The error has since been corrected.  

Tina Vásquez

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.