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Family of transgender woman who died in ICE custody files federal lawsuit

Lawsuit alleges Roxsana Hernández denied medical care

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A picture of Roxsana Hernández, a transgender Honduran woman with HIV who died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in 2018, hangs on a wall inside the offices of Colectivo Unidad Color Rosa, an LGBTI advocacy group in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The family of a transgender woman with HIV who died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in 2018 has filed a federal lawsuit against five private companies that were responsible for her care.

The Transgender Law Center and two immigration lawyers — Daniel Yohalem in Santa Fe., N.M., and R. Andrew Free in Nashville — filed the lawsuit on Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico. Management and Training Corporation, LaSalle Corrections, Global Precision Systems, TransCor America and CoreCivic are named as defendants.

Hernández, who was from Honduras, entered U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody on May 9, 2018, when she asked for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego. She was later sent to the Cibola County Correctional Center, a facility in Milan N.M., that CoreCivic, which was previously known as the Corrections Corporation of America, operates.

Hernández was admitted to Cibola General Hospital in Grants, N.M., shortly after she arrived at the detention center. Hernández died at Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque, N.M., on May 25, 2018.

Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque, N.M. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The lawsuit alleges Hernández on May 14, 2018, “exhibited visible signs of deterioration requiring immediate medical intervention” when Management and Training Corporation transported her and 12 other trans detainees from San Ysidro to the San Luis Regional Detention Center, a facility in San Luis, Ariz., that LaSalle Corrections operates.

“MTC denied Roxsana and her fellow detainees food, water, and restroom access throughout their transfer,” reads the lawsuit.

The lawsuit notes one detainee said Hernández appeared “very weak and pale, almost yellow in pallor, with dark circles under her eyes” when she was at the San Luis Regional Detention Center.  

Hernández was at the facility for only a “few hours,” but she “used the bathroom several times to vomit or spit up phlegm.” The lawsuit claims Hernández “was so weak from fever that she spent most of her time at SLRDC (San Luis Regional Detention Center) laying on the floor, coughing.”

“Officers of Defendant LaSalle Corrections witnessed Roxsana’s obvious state of medical need and failed to offer her emergency medical assistance,” reads the lawsuit. “Eventually during her time at SLRDC Roxsana was so ill she could not eat and had to use the restroom approximately every 15 minutes because she had such bad diarrhea.”

The lawsuit states Hernández and more than two dozen other trans detainees at around midnight on May 15 boarded a bus that took them to the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa.

“Roxsana was very ill during the four-hour bus ride and pleaded for help to a person who sat with her, saying words to the effect of, ‘Help me! I don’t know if I’m going to survive,’” reads the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges a LaSalle Corrections officer “threatened” Hernández and the other detainees with whom she was traveling. The lawsuit says one detainee asked officers in both English and Spanish to provide medical care to Hernández, but they “ignored her.”

“When they arrived at the airport, one of the people being transported by LaSalle alongside Roxsana told an officer with beige pants and long red hair that Roxsana was very sick and needed immediate medical attention,” reads the lawsuit. “The officer refused to respond to her. During her five hour stay in the Mesa airport Roxsana remained in LaSalle’s custody and was provided no medical care or assistance for her sickness.”

The lawsuit states Hernández and the other detainees flew to El Paso, Texas, and arrived at the El Paso Processing Center at around 3:15 p.m. The lawsuit notes Hernández remained at the facility until the morning of May 16, 2018.

“She and her fellow asylum seekers woke up to ICE officers presenting them food that they were instructed to eat for breakfast at around 5:00 a.m.,” reads the lawsuit. “Roxsana attempted to eat the meal provided, but ended up vomiting and then going back to sleep.”

“By this time, Roxsana appeared to all around her to be gravely ill,” reads the lawsuit. “Despite LaSalle’s knowledge of Roxsana’s urgent need for medical care, during the entire time Roxsana was in LaSalle’s custody LaSalle did not provide her with medical care or assistance to alleviate her suffering.”

The lawsuit says Hernández and 29 other detainees who were going to the Cibola County Correctional Center boarded a bus at around 9 a.m.

“Each person was provided an 8-ounce bottle of water and sandwich to last the entire five and-half hour journey to the Cibola detention center in New Mexico,” says the lawsuit, which notes the temperature in El Paso that day reached 97 degrees before noon.

The lawsuit notes Hernández asked an officer for water during the trip, but he told her that he did not speak Spanish.

Hernández reportedly “had a fever and produced a significant amount of phlegm during the trip” and had bloody sputum when she blew her nose. The lawsuit also notes Hernández “felt dizzy and extremely exhausted, and her stomach hurt badly.”

The lawsuit says the bus arrived at the ICE Criminal Alien Program facility in Albuquerque at around 2:30 p.m.

“Despite GPS’s knowledge of Roxsana’s urgent need for medical care, during the entire time Roxsana was in GPS’s custody GPS did not provide her with medical care or assistance to alleviate her suffering,” it reads.

The lawsuit says officers from TransCor drove Hernández and 28 other trans detainees to the Cibola County Correctional Center, which is roughly 80 miles west of Albuquerque. The detainees arrived at the facility shortly after 8 p.m.

“Throughout this trip, Roxsana continued to appear gravely ill,” reads the lawsuit, noting she was unable to eat. 94. “Roxsana required immediate medical assistance that TransCor employees neglected to provide.”

The Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, N.M. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

The Cibola County Correctional Center at the time had a unit specifically for trans women who were in ICE custody.

The lawsuit states Hernández was booked into the facility at around 1:15 a.m. on May 17. It notes she spent the night in the facility’s “medical waiting room.”

“Roxsana lay on the floor, only getting up to use the restroom or drink a beverage officers brought around 4 a.m.,” reads the lawsuit. “Roxsana was so weak and ill that she became delirious.”

The lawsuit states Hernández was brought to an “onsite medical provider who conducted an intake screening.” Hernández received “electrolytes and Ensure” before she returned to a holding cell.

The lawsuit says “an onsite medical provider” examined Hernández at around 10 a.m. She reportedly weighted 89 lbs., and was diagnosed with “dehydration, starvation, extreme weight loss, muscle wasting, untreated HIV, fever and cough.” The lawsuit also notes Hernández’s blood pressure was 81/61 and she had “rough breathing sounds and increased amount of white phlegm mucus excreted in abnormally large quantities.”

The lawsuit states officers at the detention center called an ambulance that brought Hernández to Cibola General Hospital at 11:44 a.m. Hernández later that day was airlifted to Lovelace Medical Center where she died.

“Throughout her hospitalization, CoreCivic officers shackled Roxsana at her wrists and both ankles to her hospital bed except when medical personnel needed to remove them for certain medical procedures,” reads the lawsuit. “At least one armed CoreCivic officer guarded Roxsana at all times and checked that her restraints were secured at least every 20 minutes.”

“Each time medical staff needed CoreCivic officers to remove her restraints, the officer on duty made a call to ‘central’ to receive approval to remove them, delaying Roxsana’s receipt of medical care,” notes the lawsuit. “CoreCivic officers kept Roxsana shackled even after her treating medical providers medically paralyzed her and when she first went into cardiac arrest.”

‘Every private entity tasked with Roxsana’s care failed her’

An autopsy the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator performed concluded Hernández died from Castleman disease associated with AIDS.

A second autopsy` that former Georgia Chief Medical Examiner Kris Sperry performed at the Transgender Law Center’s request concluded the cause of death was “most probably severe complications of dehydration superimposed upon HIV infection, with the probable presence of one or more opportunistic infections.” The second autopsy also found “evidence of physical abuse” that included bruising on Hernández’s rib cage and contusions on her body.

“Every private entity tasked with Roxsana’s care failed her,” said Dale Melchert, a Transgender Law Center staff attorney, in a press release that announced the lawsuit. “What we know about the short time that Roxsana was in immigration custody is that the officers tasked with transporting her saw her health deteriorate, heard her cries for help, and did nothing. She needlessly suffered as a result of their inaction.”

ICE has denied allegations that Hernández was abused while in its custody.

Amanda Gilchrist, a spokesperson for CoreCivic, on Thursday told the Los Angeles Blade in a statement the company offers “our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Roxsana Hernández.” Gilchrist also noted Hernández was “gravely ill” when she arrived at the Cibola County Correctional Center.

“When she arrived, she went through the intake process, which includes a medical evaluation,” said Gilchrist. “The medical team made the determination that she needed to be immediately transported to an outside hospital.” 

“Ms. Hernandez was only at Cibola for 12 hours, where she stayed in the intake area before being transported to the hospital where she passed away nine days later,” she added.

Issa Arnita, a spokesperson for the Management and Training Corporation, on Thursday told the Blade in an email the company “disputes the allegations in the lawsuit, but is unable to comment any further because of the litigation.” Arnita in a second email noted Hernández was in Management and Training Corporation’s custody for “less than four hours, more than a week before her death.”

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Virginia

Virginia lawmaker introduces anti-Trans bathroom legislation

Democrats still have a 21-19 majority in the state Senate, and they have signaled they will oppose any effort to curtail LGBTQ rights

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Virginia State Capitol building (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

RICHMOND – A Virginia lawmaker has introduced a bill that would restrict the ability of transgender students and school board employees to use bathrooms and other facilities in public schools that are consistent with their gender identity.

House Bill 1126, which state Delegate John Avoli (R-Stanton) introduced, would require “each school board to adopt policies to require each student and school board employee to have access to restrooms, locker rooms and other changing facilities in public school buildings that are shared only by members of the same biological sex; lodging accommodations during school-sponsored trips that are shared only by members of the same biological sex; and a single-user restroom, locker room, or other changing facility in a public school building, upon request, if the school can reasonably accommodate such a request.”

Avoli introduced HB 1126 on Jan. 12 on the same day the Virginia General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began with Republicans in control of the House of Delegates. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office on Jan. 15.

State Sen. Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell County) last month introduced Senate Bill 20, which would eliminate the requirement that school districts must implement the Department of Education’s trans and non-binary student guidelines. State Del. Danica Roem (D-Manassas), who in 2018 became the first openly trans person seated in any state legislature in the U.S., told the Washington Blade last week that she expects SB 20 “would be dead on arrival” in committee.

Equality Virginia, a statewide LGBTQ rights group, on its website notes HB 1126 is among the bills that it opposes.

Democrats still have a 21-19 majority in the state Senate, and they have signaled they will oppose any effort to curtail LGBTQ rights in Virginia. Outgoing Equality Virginia Executive Director Vee Lamneck last week said their organization “will work with the Senate’s pro-equality majority to act as a crucial back stop against harmful legislation and efforts to roll back our hard-earned wins passed during the last two years.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

High Court to hear case of school prayer but not anti-LGBTQ web designer

The Justices added five new cases including the case of a fired former Bremerton, Washington assistant high school football coach

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The Justices of the United States Supreme Court (Photo Credit: U.S. Supreme Court)

WASHINGTON – After their private conference on Friday, the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court added five new cases to this term including the case of a former Bremerton, Washington assistant high school football coach removed for refusing to halt his practice of praying at mid-field after games.

The court however declined to hear the case of a website designer who refused to create custom sites for same-sex weddings.

SCOTUSblog senior reporter Amy Howe reportedthe case of the football coach involves Joseph Kennedy, a practicing Christian whose religious beliefs require him to “give thanks through prayer, at the end of each game.” When he began his job as an assistant coach at Bremerton High School, a public school in Washington state, he initially prayed alone after games, but over time some of his players – and eventually a majority of the team – joined him. One parent complained that his son, a player on the team, felt like he had to join in the prayer, even though he was an atheist, or face a loss of playing time.”

Bremerton School District officials had attempted to accommodate Kennedy after warning him to stop the prayers as District officials clarified that they did not want to violate the Constitution’s establishment clause, which prohibits the government from favoring one religion over another.

The district offered Kennedy the ability to pray after the crowd had left the stadium or in a private space both options that he refused. Kennedy had retained counsel and the legal team indicated that they would pursue father legal action.

According to media accounts he then prayed publicly with his players at two more games after which he was placed on administrative leave. After a review which included a recommendation by the head football coach that he be terminated, Kennedy was let go and then filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Bremerton School District had violated his First Amendment rights and federal civil rights laws.

Joseph Kennedy being interviewed by NBC News affiliate KING-TV 5, Seattle, Washington

Kennedy came to the Supreme Court in 2018 seeking to get his job back while litigation continued. The court turned him down, but Justice Samuel Alito penned a statement regarding that denial that was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh. Alito wrote that Kennedy’s free-speech claim raised important issues, and he suggested the case may warrant review in the future,” SCOTUSblog reported.

Ultimately, the U.S. District Court rejected Kennedy’s argument ruling against him and the case was then heard by a 3 judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which upheld that decision. The 9th Circuit turned down a petition for an En banc (full) review by the entire 9th Circuit.

Kennedy returned to the Supreme Court in September 2021, telling the justices that the 9th Circuit’s ruling used “imagined Establishment Clause concerns to inflict real Free Exercise Clause damage,” he argued adding; “The religious expression of hundreds of thousands of teachers in the Ninth Circuit is now on the verge of extinction,” he contended. Moreover, Kennedy added, the ruling’s “chilling effects elsewhere around the country are palpable, as the Ninth Circuit essentially held” Kennedy’s “efforts to publicize the denial of his constitutional rights against him.”

The school district countered that whether Kennedy has the right to a “brief, quiet prayer by himself while at school” “is entirely beside the point” – particularly when, the district insisted, “every word of that description is wrong.” The dispute before the court, it stressed, is “about a school district’s authority to protect students when its employee does not work with it to find a reasonable accommodation.” A ruling for Kennedy, the school district warned, would require the Supreme Court “to overturn decades of settled law under both the Free Speech and Establishment Clauses,” SCOTUSblog reported.

The Justices declined to take up a case on appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, brought by The Alliance Defending Freedom, (ADF)- listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBTQ extremist hate group.

The case stemmed from a Lakewood, Colorado based web designer, who sued to challenge Colorado’s anti-discrimination law. ADF filed its appeal last Fall asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review that ruling.

Lorie Smith, claimed in court filings that the Colorado law violated Smith’s freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression, citing that it would force her to design wedding websites for same-sex couples which violated her ‘Christian’ beliefs.

In its 2-1 ruling, the 10th Circuit panel said Colorado had a compelling interest in protecting the “dignity interests” of members of marginalized groups through its law.

In a statement issued by ADF, the Arizona based firm claimed; “The 10th Circuit issued an unprecedented decision in the case, 303 Creative v. Elenis, holding that Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act both forced Lorie “to create websites—and thus, speech—that [she] would otherwise refuse,” and also created a “substantial risk” of removing “certain ideas or viewpoints from the public dialogue,” including Lorie’s beliefs about marriage.”

ADF added; “The lawsuit contends that Colorado Revised Statute § 24-34-601(2)(a) violates the First Amendment’s Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses. The state law is the same one the commission twice used against Masterpiece Cakeshop cake artist Jack Phillips, who is currently being harassed by an activist attorney in a third lawsuit that also attempts to use Colorado’s law against him. After a trial resulted in a decision against Phillips, ADF attorneys representing him and his shop have appealed that case to the Colorado Court of Appeals.”

Colorado Solicitor General Eric Olson questioned whether Smith should even be allowed to challenge the law since she had not started offering wedding websites yet, the Associated Press reported.

But if she did, Olson said, her argument would mean she would refuse to create a website for a hypothetical same-sex couple named Alex and Taylor but agree to make the same one for an opposite-sex couple with the same names. He said that would be discrimination under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Judge Mark Beck Briscoe wrote in the majority opinion (303 Creative, et al. v. Elenis, et al.) that “we must also consider the grave harms caused when public accommodations discriminate on the basis of race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation. Combatting such discrimination is, like individual autonomy, `essential’ to our democratic ideals.”

In his dissent, Chief Judge Timothy Tymkovich wrote that “this case illustrates exactly why we have a First Amendment. Properly applied, the Constitution protects Ms. Smith from the government telling her what to say or do.

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Virginia

Glenn Youngkin sworn in as 74th governor of Virginia

The newly sworn-in Republican Governor backed a Loudoun County teacher who opposed trans student guidelines

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Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin being sworn into office (Blade screenshot via YouTube Live coverage)

RICHMOND – Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office on Saturday amid concerns that he will seek to curtail LGBTQ rights in the state.

“Today we gather not as individuals, not as Republicans and Democrats,” said Youngkin after his swearing in. “Today we gather as Virginians.”

Former Gov. Ralph Northam and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) are among those who attended the ceremony that took place at the State Capitol. Terry McAuliffe, who Youngkin defeated in the general election, did not attend because of a COVID-19 scare.

Youngkin during his campaign against McAuliffe expressed support for Tanner Cross, a gym teacher at a Leesburg elementary school who was suspended from his job after he spoke out against Virginia Department of Education guidelines that are designed to protect transgender and non-binary students. Youngkin has also said he does not support allowing trans children to play on sports teams that are consistent with their gender identity.

Youngkin on Thursday named Elizabeth Schultz, an anti-LGBTQ former member of the Fairfax County School Board, to his administration.

“We will remove politics from the classroom and focus on the essentials,” said Youngkin in his inaugural speech, without specifically mentioning LGBTQ students.

He added “parents should have a say in what is taught in schools.”

Youngkin has also expressed his opposition to marriage equality, but stressed it is “legally acceptable” in Virginia and would “support that” as governor.

Lieutenant Gov. Winsome Sears and Attorney General Jason Miyares also took office on Saturday.

Winsome, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates, is the first woman and first female of color elected lieutenant governor. Miyares, a former House member whose mother was born in Cuba, is Virginia’s first Latino attorney general.

Youngkin in his inaugural speech noted “the people of Virginia just elected the most diverse leadership” in the state’s history. Youngkin’s first executive order ends “the use of” so-called “critical race theory” (which is not taught in Virginia schools) and other “divisive concepts” in Virginia’s public schools.

The General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Wednesday.

Republicans control the House by a 52-48 margin. Democrats have a 21-19 edge in the Virginia Senate.

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