Death of trans asylum seeker, Johana Medina Leon, while in ICE custody once again shows human cost of broken immigration system

By Christine Bolaños


Many people dream of becoming a millionaire or a household name during their lifetimes. All Johana Medina Leon wanted was to help others heal. That’s why she became a certified nurse in her native El Salvador. But living openly as a trans woman in a country with one of the highest femicide (violence against women) rates globally, made it impossible for Medina Leon to do her job. Attempting to escape the daily stigma and threat of violence in her home country, she set off for the United States. Once on American soil, she thought she could live and work freely as a trans immigrant nurse. However, that decision, and the series of events that followed, ultimately cost her her life.

Johana Medina Leon’s death

Medina Leon, fondly called Joa by friends, died at a hospital in El Paso, Texas on June 1. Coincidently, June 1 marked the first day of Pride Month. According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, Medina Leon spent six weeks in detention, where she was seeking asylum, before being released on parole from Otero County Processing Center and taken to the hospital where she ultimately passed away.

Immigrant advocates and those who knew her said Medina Leon was a casualty of a broken immigration system and a government agency unfit to care for her and other members of the LGBTQ community.

“She was in ICE detention for two months in a New Mexico facility. For weeks, she pleaded for medical help, referring to her [continuous] health problems. After two months of suffering, [Johana] became extremely ill and unconscious forcing ICE to take her to Las Palmas del Sol Hospital in El Paso, Texas,” wrote Juarez, Mexico-based Casa Migrante’s trans leader Grecia. “This morning, I went to visit her at the hospital intensive care unit. When I looked at her, I said that what happened a year ago to [Roxsana] in the month of May could happen to Joa right in there.”

ICE’s reaction

The hospital later called Grecia to confirm her worst fear. Meanwhile, ICE officials confirm 25-year-old Medina Leon arrived to the United States on April 11 at the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry and entered ICE custody on April 14. After passing her credible fear interview, ICE officials determined she had a potential asylum case on May 18. She requested an HIV test, which came back positive, and on that same day was taken to a hospital after complaining of chest pains where she died.

“This is yet another unfortunate example of an individual who illegally enters the United States with an untreated, unscreened medical condition,” Corey A. Price, field office director for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations in El Paso, told NBC News. “Many of these aliens attempt to enter the United States with untreated or unknown diseases, which are not diagnosed until they are examined while in detention.”

Medina Leon’s allies, however, said her death could have been avoided and is the latest example of the neglect and abuse that immigrants are subjected to while in federal custody. They believe that LGBTQ and disabled immigrants are a particularly vulnerable demographic.

Otero County Processing Center was at the center of controversy long before Johana’ was placed in its custody. An investigation by Las Cruces Sun News in December 2017 found numerous issues with the way the facility operated.

The Inspector General’s audit report at the time said federal inspectors observed non-working phones, unsanitary bathrooms, and unjustified lockdowns and solitary confinement. At the time, the audit found issues with four other ICE facilities and cited “evidence of systematic and suspicionless strip searches, rotten food and moldy bathrooms, the misuse of segregation, the denial of communications and long delays for medical care.”

At the time, a regional ICE spokesperson defended the “high standards” of its detention facilities. The audit’s findings and the subsequent reaction from ICE officials don’t surprise Medina Leon’s allies who worry that the cycle of abuse and neglect of trans immigrants might continue.

What Johana’s allies believe

“What we see is a lot of friction with the guards,” Anakai Flotte with immigrant advocacy group Diversidad Sin Fronteras told The Mujerista. She said the trans immigrants she’s worked with informed her that guards refer to trans women as men.


“They don’t respect their gender identity. Many of them talk about harassment. Another big one is solitary confinement as a form of retaliation,” Flotte said. “Instead of solving the issue, ICE will punish them or send them to solitary, so they’re unable to communicate with organizers, activists, or lawyers who are representing them.”

She said advocates have also noticed that trans women are less likely to be paroled. Meanwhile, she said, gay men are ostracized by other men in the general population and neglected by guards who either don’t want to deal with them or don’t know how. Lesbian women report feeling more targeted or policed due to their sexual identity when in the general population. Flotte said that oftentimes, other women don’t want to be housed with lesbians.

Making matters even worse is that members of the LGBTQ community often migrate together to the U.S., but once they claim asylum, they are separated and sent to different detention facilities. This separation makes them feel more alone and vulnerable to abuse and neglect.

“With every single LGBT population, the issue is the same. The guards are not well-trained,” Flotte said. “They’re not actually thinking about sexual or gender orientation at all. If you went to ask a guard right now what gender identity means, they probably wouldn’t be able to tell you. Because they don’t know how to deal with this population, their humanity gets lost, and I think that’s a big issue we’re dealing with right now.”

Repeat issues

Medina Leon’s death comes one year before 33-year-old Roxsana Hernandez, a trans woman from Honduras, died of AIDS complications while in ICE custody. Hernandez was part of the Central American migrant caravan that arrived in the U.S. last year. She died at a hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico on May 25, 2018.

There is also evidence, Flotte believes, that trans immigrants like Hernandez and Medina Leon are more susceptible to other types of abuse and frustration.

Queer immigrants, S.A.C. (as she is publicly known) and Karolina Lopez, journeyed from Guatemala and Mexico respectively and were both granted asylum after overcoming a series of hurdles. S.A.C. received her status in October 2017, and Lopez got hers in 2015.

There are no solid statistics hinting at the success of asylum granted to immigrants who identify as trans but both women, along with many advocates and lawyers, believe the rate is low.

Before receiving asylum, both women endured abuse while in federal custody. S.A.C. said Guatemalan hitmen became aggressively violent toward trans women and forced them to sell drugs and sex on the streets. She eventually fled to the U.S. and was placed at Stewart Detention Center in Georgia where she said she was subject to intolerance and prejudice.

“I told (one of the managers) my preferred female name, and she told me that I am not a woman,” S.A.C. told Remezcla. “I was sent to solitary because they said I was crazy.”

According to the report, a psychologist determined she was mentally fit and sent her back to the general population in less than 24 hours. She eventually gained asylum which lawyers said may have set a precedent for similar cases.

Lopez was sent to the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, dealt with similar mistreatment, and eventually granted asylum, she told Remezcla. However, she still suffers from depression, anxiety, and stress as a result of her time in detention. She also doesn’t trust the government to keep anyone safe.

“On the contrary, they oppress,” she told Remezcla.

Justice for Johana

Flotte said many trans immigrants who flee their homelands suffer abuse and neglect from her own family. This is a common theme in Latin American countries that still stigmatize and ostracize the LGBTQ community. Trans people may suffer beatings or be exiled from their families when they find out about their gender identity. Many factors contribute to these reactions but are generally linked to conservative beliefs, Catholicism, and a male-dominant culture.

In Medina Leon’s case, her mother and sister recently decided to take action and are seeking justice on her behalf. With representation from a California law firm, they are suing ICE and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for a total of $20 million in damages.

The Dolan Law Firm granted The Mujerista a request for a copy of the lawsuit.

The wrongful death suit claims Medina Leon became ill while in federal custody and because she was a nurse, she knew to request IV fluids and a medical exam. When her request was denied, she asked for water, sugar, and salt to make her own solution. According to the claim, she was rejected these items again, and her health deteriorated. By the time she was taken to the hospital, it was too late.

“Claimants believe that her gender identity and status as a transgender person played an active role in the denial of her rights and mistreatment. Indeed, it appears to be part of a pattern and practice employed by ICE and Homeland Security,” the suit reads.

Repeated attempts to contact Medina Leon’s family were unsuccessful.

Human cost

The human cost of a broken immigration system was made all too real recently when an unfiltered photo of a young Salvadoran father and toddler daughter who drowned face down in a stream while migrating to the U.S., surfaced on social media. It was a huge source of controversy for both political parties and a call to action for progressives who want immigrant reform.

Immigration dominated the first debate among 2020 Democratic presidential candidates this week with several of the candidates directly referencing the photo.

“Watching that image of Oscar and his daughter, Valeria, is heartbreaking. It should also piss us all off. If I were president today, I would sign an executive order that would get rid of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, the remain-in-Mexico policy, and the metering policy,” said Julian Castro, the only Latino in the running.

Meanwhile, Cory Booker said he would end ICE and Customs and Border policies that are violating human rights.

“When people come to this country, they do not leave their human rights at the border,” Booker said.

Castro sparred with fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke after disagreeing on strategy for border security and family separation at the border. Castro said he wants to decriminalize all border crossings and make them a civil offense. Meanwhile, O’Rourke expressed reservations about what that means to violent offenders coming to the border.

“As a member of Congress, I helped to introduce legislation that would ensure we don’t criminalize those seeking asylum. If you are fleeing desperation, I want to make sure you are treated with respect,” O’Rourke said.



While politicians continue to debate solutions to the border crisis, everyday people are rallying in support of immigrants at the border and in detention. Diversidad Sin Fronteras hosted two events, including one in San Diego, California, and one in Austin, Texas, this week to write letters and raise commissary funds for trans people in immigrant detention. The gatherings, held in honor of Pride Week, are meant to produce letters that show trans immigrants solidarity and support when they may otherwise feel alone and forgotten.

Sabina Ibarrola, a queer Latina in Austin, and her girlfriend Rachael Shannon, coordinated the Austin event.

“I feel really depressed about what’s happening. Because of that I feel compelled to take action where I can and try to connect with other people about it,” said Ibarrola, who’s visited immigrants in detention as part of advocacy group Grassroot Leadership’s efforts and supported the migrant caravan. “I think this regime is intended to make people feel small and isolated both inside and outside and make them feel alone and forgotten.”

There are a plethora of ways to show immigrants solidarity. First, U.S. residents can contact their elected officials to ask them what they are doing to address conditions in detention facilities. They can donate or volunteer their time to immigrant advocacy groups in the U.S. and Mexico. They can pledge their frequent flier numbers to Lawyer Moms of America and Project Corazon, which have joined forces to send pro bono lawyers and migrant families where they need. They can find out how to launch a “Dignity Not Detention” campaign in their home state via the Freedom for Immigrants website. They can also write a letter to the editor in their local paper calling for change. Visit the American Civil Liberties Union’s website for writing tips.

Ibarrola said immigrants held in detention facilities might think no one cares, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. At the same time, social justice warriors like Ibarrola and Shannon may feel overwhelmed with the situation and feel discouraged to try to make an impact.

“Moments when we can connect together and have an event like the letter writing party, it’s important to remember you’re not only in your head alone. You’re not on your own Facebook timeline thinking about this; you’re connecting in real time,” Ibarrola said.