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A Terrifying Reality for HIV-Positive Migrants and Refugees

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Before COVID-19 had taken over the globe, two HIV-positive transgender Latinas, Roxsana Hernandez from Honduras and Johana Medina Leon from El Salvador, died in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Causes of the young women’s deaths are murky, but a report by NBC News indicated the 33-year-old Hernandez — who ICE officially claimed passed away due to cardiac arrest — may have actually died of HIV complications, possibly because she couldn’t get access to her meds.

Now, the Transgender Law Center has filed a federal lawsuit against several companies providing immigration detention services, alleging their negligence led to Hernandez’s death.

“This government has not and would not help us,” says Marco Castro-Bojorquez, the cofounder of HIV Racial Justice. “To the contrary, it has systematically attacked us from the get-go. They closed the borders, and as far I am concerned there’s no immigration activity at the border with Mexico. There are countless people being directly sent to Central America, and there are a ton of people in the border towns, something that didn’t exist before Trump.” Castro-Bojorquez describes the situation at ICE facilities as “concentration camp-like.”

If the situation was dire before for poz immigrants and refugees to this country, many of whom are seeking escape from poverty and violence in Central and South America, it only grew worse after the novel coronavirus took hold. While health experts indicate HIV-positive people on their meds are no more vulnerable to COVID-19 than HIV-negative people, those who can’t adhere to their regimen could face greater risk for infection with the virus and serious complications from it.

The nonprofit organization Immigration Equality filed a complaint in March with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, demanding the immediate release of all HIV-positive people in ICE detention. Its justification: “grossly negligent medical care” putting lives of poz immigrants and refugees at “great risk.”

Reports have emerged that access to medications is only part of the problem. Some have also alleged crowded facilities and a lack of soap and hand sanitizer.

In the complaint, Immigration Equality Executive Director Aaron C. Morris cited six specific individuals, all seeking asylum for persecution because of their sexual orientation, political opinion, and HIV status. The ICE detainees were denied release even though they were eligible for parole with a sponsor.

“Our community has faced a life-threatening pandemic before. Then, as now, we raised the alarm with government officials who did nothing until we forced them to,” Morris said in a statement. “We cannot allow the negligence of the federal government to let our people die again. All people living with HIV must be released from immigration detention immediately. Every day DHS waits will have fatal consequences.” 

Immigration Equality’s advocacy may have paid off. Two days after filing the complaint, ICE officials released five LGBTQ immigrants with compromised immune systems, including two with HIV, from detention facilities in Arizona, the group Trans Queer Pueblo announced in late March.

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