Sacramento LGBTQ community rallies for transgender women who died in ICE custody

#JusticeForRoxsana, a national week of protests, culminated with a Sacramento rally on the third day of Pride Month.
#JusticeForRoxsana, a national week of protests, culminated with a Sacramento rally on the third day of Pride Month.

It was the third day of Pride Month, the evening was bright and cool, and members of the LGBTQ community congregated on the corner of 7th Street and Capitol Avenue in Sacramento – but no celebration was in sight.

They were gathered to protest the deaths of two transgender women in ICE custody: Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez, who died May 25, 2018, at the age of 33, and Johana Medina Leon, who died Saturday at the age of 25, mere days after the one-year anniversary of Hernandez’s death.

It is a somber beginning to Pride Month, which takes place in June to commemorate the Stonewall riots of June 1969, a spontaneous uprising of the LGBTQ community against police brutality in New York. This year marks Stonewall’s 50th anniversary.

#JusticeForRoxsana is a national week of protests that began May 26, 2019, before Medina’s death, and has spanned 18 cities in 10 states, according to the #StillHere coalition. The Sacramento demonstration, which took place in front of the Sacramento Field Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services, was its conclusion.

Protesters chanted Hernandez and Medina’s names as they marched around Capitol Mall before returning to the field office, where four organizers, bearing black buckets, strew fake blood over the office doors. Cheering protestors raised their fists in solidarity.

“ICE has blood on its hands,” Nghia Nguyen, an organizer, shouted.

“ICE has blood on its hands,” protesters chanted back.

Hernandez and Medina presented themselves for asylum at the border. Both had left Central America: Hernandez was Honduran, and Medina was Salvadoran.

An ICE news release said the cause of Hernandez’s death was cardiac arrest. But a private autopsy commissioned by the Transgender Law Center found that Hernandez “endured physical assault and abuse while in custody” before dying of dehydration and complications related to HIV infection. Medina was taken to a hospital due to complaints of chest pains before her death at Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso, ICE officials said.

Speakers at the rally included an undocumented woman who said she was in the same migrant caravan as Hernandez.

“Like Roxsana, I have been unjustly incarcerated, mutilated, extorted, raped and excluded completely from society for being a trans woman,” the woman said through a translator, describing their arduous journey to the San Ysidro Port of Entry, during which Hernandez’s health deteriorated. While in ICE custody, multiple requests for urgent medical aid for Hernandez were ignored, she said.

The first time Hernandez was taken to a doctor, she returned untreated, with no medication, the woman said.

The second time, she didn’t return at all.

“A few days later, they told us the tragic news that Roxsana had died,” the woman said.

A notice of wrongful death filed by the Transgender Law Center said, “Forensic evidence indicates she was handcuffed so tightly as to cause deep tissue bruising and struck repeatedly on the back and rib cage by an asp or similar instrument while her hands were restrained behind her back.”

“Roxsana was a warrior like all the transgender women who escaped Honduras,” the woman said. “In what country do you ask for asylum and receive prison?”

Organizers also expressed their concerns about police presence at the PRIDE Parade, which the Sacramento LGBT Community Center recently negotiated. Police have historically been antagonistic to the LGBTQ community, Nguyen said. According to a study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans are three times more likely to be incarcerated than the general US population.

“Would you invite Nazis to a Jewish celebration?” Nguyen asked.

Cori Ring-Martinez, co-chair of the Sacramento chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, said, “We hear the war drums being beaten and we have to say no. Because the cost is measured in lives lost and families torn apart.

“It’s important to start Pride Month this way because the movement is at its core anti-militarist and anti-police.”

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Chalay Chalermkraivuth, from Yale University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She reports on arts and entertainment, the LGBTQ community and social justice. She grew up in Bangkok, Thailand.