Queer and Dying at the Border: Advocates Call for Release of LGBTQ Asylum-Seekers

“The U.S. must protect asylum-seekers fleeing persecution, not subject them to life-threatening conditions."

On June 1, the first day of Pride month, a trans woman from El Salvador named Johana Medina died in ICE custody. Customs and Border Patrol told Medina that she was a man, not a woman, and she was denied the intravenous medication she needed to treat her HIV.

Medina was the second trans woman to die in ICE custody since Donald Trump took office. Roxana Hernández passed away last year after being beaten and denied medical treatment.

Lack of medical attention, harassment, rape, and other forms of abuse are common for LGBTQ individuals who are trapped at the border. According to a report from the Center for American Progress, LGBTQ individuals are 97 times more likely to experience sexual abuse at border detention centers. Consequently, a number of LGBTQ-focused organizations are working to help queer asylum-seekers who are facing life-or-death situations.

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Kristen Thompson, communications director for Immigration Equality, tells NewNowNext that the medical needs of LGBTQ people at the border are routinely ignored.

“HIV-positive asylum seekers—including many who identify themselves as HIV-positive to authorities—may have to wait months until medication is given, or a correct dosage is given,” Thompson says. “Sometimes they receive no medical evaluation or care altogether. There is currently a mumps outbreak spreading through detention centers, which poses a threat to all immigrants detained in those facilities, but is especially dangerous to HIV-positive individuals who may or may not be receiving adequate medication.”

Thompson notes that LGBTQ individuals are often placed in solitary confinement for long periods of time; the U.N. has defined prolonged solitary confinement as a form of torture. She says Medina’s life may have been saved if she had received adequate care, and stresses that many trans immigrants are under threat at this very moment because they’re not receiving proper care.

“After entering the U.S., Johana was held in detention for over a month, at which point the Department of Homeland Security found that she had a credible fear of persecution,” Thompson continues. “She should have been immediately released from detention to pursue an asylum claim. Instead, ICE subjected her to deplorable conditions that led to her untimely death. On May 28, she tested positive for HIV and was transferred to a hospital in El Paso, and died within days. She lost her life due to extreme neglect by the U.S. government.”

Because ICE has shown a pattern of neglect and abuse when it comes to LGBTQ and HIV-positive refugees, Immigration Equality is calling for these individuals to be released.

“We call for the release of all LGBTQ and HIV-positive people currently detained,” Thompson says. “The U.S. must protect asylum-seekers fleeing persecution, not subject them to life-threatening conditions of confinement.”

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Many of these queer folks are fleeing to the U.S. because they’re in danger in their own countries. Thompson explains that many of them face life-threatening situations at home simply because they’re LGBTQ. According to a 2016 U.N. study, 90% of LGBTQ asylum-seekers from Central America have faced sexual and gender-based violence in the countries they’re fleeing. Furthermore, it’s illegal to be LGBTQ in over 70 countries, so some face the possibility of imprisonment simply for being who they are.

Thompson says groups like Immigration Equality are doing all they can to aid LGBTQ immigrants at the border, and even small donations to the cause can prove extremely helpful. Currently, the organization is running a peer-to-peer fundraiser to raise $50,000 in honor of 50 years since Stonewall; every dollar will go to help LGBTQ asylum-seekers.

Thompson also encourages LGBTQ Americans to contact their representatives and ask for these individuals to be freed. In the spirit of Pride month and Stonewall50, Thompson supports, we must do all we can to protect our own.

Thor Benson is a traveling journalist who is currently located in Los Angeles. He has contributed to publications like The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone and elsewhere