Things That Matter

LGBTQ Activists Create Día de Muertos Altar To Honor Trans Victims Who Died While in ICE Custody

As many of us sit down with friends and family to celebrate Día de Muertos, and honor those we’ve lost, it’s also an important reminder to honor those beyond our close circle and remember the many victims of violence and poverty around the world. That’s exactly what one group of activists recently did outside Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) headquarters in Washington, D.C.

With this Día de Muertos altar, activists honor transgender migrants who died in ICE custody.

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Last week, immigrant rights activists and members of the LGBTQ community held a protest outside ICE’s headquarters organized by Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, Immigration Equality and the End Trans Detention campaign.

Together, the groups created an ofrenda outside the building to honor three trans women — Victoria Arellano, Roxsana Hernández and Johana “Joa” Medina León — who died in ICE custody or immediately after their release. The group also used the altar to honor Pablo Sánchez, an HIV-positive man who died in ICE custody on October 1.

The activists are calling on the agency to immediately release trans people and people with HIV/AIDS from their custody.

The group is calling on ICE to release the most vulnerable detainees.

Protesters presented security officials at ICE headquarters with a petition that demands President Biden together with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas “immediately release all transgender people, people living with HIV, and people with medical conditions from ICE custody.”

The groups say that after the recent death of Pablo Sanchez-Gotopo, a Venezuelan man who was living with AIDS, in ICE custody, “it remains clear that the agency doesn’t have the capacity or humanity to care for vulnerable people and must immediately release all Trans people, people living with HIV and other medical conditions.”

A former detainee, Jessycka Ckatallea Letona, an indigenous transgender woman from Guatemala who fled persecution in her homeland because of her gender identity, told the Washington Blade about her experience while in ICE custody. According to Ckatallea, officials placed her in a pod with 70 men at a privately-run detention center in Florence, AZ. She also said personnel at another ICE detention center in Santa Ana, CA, ridiculed her because of her gender identity and forced her to strip naked before she attended hearings in her asylum case.

After a year and eight months in ICE custody, Ckatallea was released and won her asylum case and now calls the San Francisco Bay Area home.

“It was a very traumatic experience,” Ckatallea explained to the Washington Blade. “I came to a country thinking that it would take care of me, that it would protect me because of my gender identity.”

For their part, ICE claims to provide the utmost care and respect for LGBTQ individuals.

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ICE has repeatedly defended its treatment of trans people and people with HIV/AIDS who are in their custody. And the Biden administration represents new hope for transgender advocates who viewed the Trump administration as hostile to immigrants and transgender people. 

But things aren’t moving fast enough — especially when lives are at stake.

“Freedom should not come at the cost of life, health, or dignity. Yet, we continue to hear horror stories from LGBTQ and HIV-positive asylum seekers who are being assaulted, denied medical care, or left to die in ICE detention facilities. The longer these individuals are imprisoned, the more likely they are to suffer mistreatment as bad as or worse than the violence and persecution they fled. They deserve to be free. ICE must release them all immediately,” said Aaron Morris, executive director of Immigration Equality.

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