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Misgendered trans woman gains release from immigration detention after 17 months

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The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office on Thursday said it helped secure the release of a transgender woman who had been detained for 17 months by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Lexis Hernandez Avilez, 41, was initially placed in immigration detention in Yuba County in 2019 after she completed a sentence for a previous conviction, however, on Christmas evening ICE agents transferred her to a Texas jail without notifying the public defender’s office, which has been representing her since Jan. 2019.

During Avilez’s detention, medical professionals diagnosed her with gender dysphoria and she came out as a transgender woman. Despite this, ICE agents refused to place her with the female jail population and never provided her with hormonal treatment or female clothing, the public defender’s office alleged.

After efforts seeking a bond hearing for months, an immigration judge last week ordered her release, conditional on a $10,000 bond.

On Thursday, Avilez’s family announced they’d raised enough money for the bond, with help from nonprofit organization Freedom for Immigrants. Avilez has since hopped on a plane and will be reuniting with her family in Gonzales, where she lives.

Deputy Public Defender Hector Vega said in a statement:

“Ms. Avilez suffered significant mental hardship during her detention with ICE. … While struggling with her gender confirmation, she was placed in segregated confinement, denied hormonal treatment for months, and became suicidal as a result of these inhumane conditions. And yet, Ms. Avilez remained strong and has become an important voice for all transgender persons asking for humane treatment in detention.”

San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju said:

“Transgender people who are incarcerated are often misgendered and detained in isolation or with the wrong gender population. … This is a massive issue in federal immigration detention, as well as in our prison system. My office will continue to fight to protect the rights of incarcerated transgender people and fight for their release; detention centers are not safe places due to the transphobia that continues to permeate these institutions. In this situation, Ms. Avilez had the double risk of worsening health services on the inside due to ICE’s unwillingness to respect her identity, as well the risk she faced with respect to contracting the coronavirus.”

Avilez said:

“ICE and the county officers knew how difficult detention was for me and had no compassion for the way they detained me and moved me around like I meant nothing. … I am very thankful to everyone who has supported me and I am looking forward to continue my gender confirmation treatment, advocate for the release of my transgender sisters and brothers suffering in detention, and live freely as my authentic self.”

Avilez was born in Mexico but came to the U.S. as a 1-year-old and then became a permanent resident at 21. Despite this, Avilez still faces deportation and she and her attorneys are seeking to reopen her immigration case based on her new gender transition circumstances and fear of torture or death if deported.

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