After Long Battle, Public Defender Successfully Secures Release of Transgender Client from ICE Detention

SAN FRANCISCO – Yesterday, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office secured the release of Lexis Hernandez Avilez, a 41-year-old transgender woman who spent the last 17 months detained by ICE, most recently in Texas.  Her story made headlines in January of this year after ICE transferred her without notice from detention in California to Texas on Christmas night 2019. She is on a flight returning to reunite with her family in California today.

Ms. Avilez has lived in the United States since she was one, and became a lawful permanent resident at 21. As a child, Lexis suffered physical and mental abuse by relatives and was forced to hide her feminine mannerisms. Ms. Avilez was placed in immigration detention in Yuba County Jail following completing a sentence for a past conviction. During her detention, with the help of medical professionals, she was diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria and finally came out as a transgender woman. At this point, Ms. Avilez requested medically-necessary care, female clothing, asked to be identified by her female name, and requested a transfer to be held with the female population. While Yuba County Jail eventually started using her new name, they never provided the hormonal treatment nor the clothing or housing needed despite months of advocacy.

The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office has represented Ms. Avilez  since January 2019 and has continually advocated for her rights as a transgender woman. “Ms. Avilez suffered significant mental hardship during her detention with ICE,” said her lawyer, Hector Vega. “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. She is a kind and generous woman and we are happy her rights were ultimately upheld.” 

During immigration proceedings, Vega filed a petition to legally recognize Ms. Avilez as female, to formally change her name, and to have her case reopened requesting protection from torture abroad. Following the refusal from ICE and Yuba County Jail to provide her medically-necessary care, the Public Defender’s Office filed a habeas petition in the Northern District of California seeking her immediate release due to the federal government’s inability to provide appropriate care for Ms. Avilez as a transgender person in detention.

“Transgender people who are incarcerated are often misgendered and detained in isolation or with the wrong gender population,” said San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju. “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,” said Raju. “I am thrilled that we were able to secure her release.”

On April 8, 2020, the District Court granted Ms. Avilez’s habeas petition and ordered a bond hearing for Ms. Avilez. On April 16, 2020, the Immigration Judge found that Ms. Avilez was not a dangerous person and ordered her release, conditional on a $10,000 bond. Yesterday, Ms. Avilez’s family was able to raise the money with support from Freedom For Immigrants, a local non-profit organization supporting the immigrant community.  Ms. Avilez is flying to San Jose, California today, the closest airport to Gonzalez, California, where she lives.

“Freedom for Immigrants is proud to support Lexis in her release by helping to pay a $10,000 bond through our National Bond Fund,” said Christina Mansfield, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Freedom for Immigrants. “We believe no one should be imprisoned in abusive ICE jails and prisons. Lexis is a fierce advocate for not only herself, but for other transgender women incarcerated in our country’s inhumane immigrant detention system “

The transgender community remains one of the most vulnerable groups whom ICE detains throughout the country as they often face abusive and unsafe conitions. 

During her detention, after months of ignoring her medically-necessary care and refusal to detain her with other females, ICE transferred Ms. Avilez to Alvarado, Texas, on Christmas evening without notice to her attorney, and away from her family and community support. 

“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,” said Ms. Avilez. “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.” 

Ms. Avilez’s immigration case continues. She is currently seeking to reopen her immigration case based on her new gender transition circumstances and her fear of torture or even death should she be deported to her country of birth, Mexico. 

“While we are not done fighting for Ms. Avilez, today, for the first time in 17 months, she will be able to be free at home, together with her loved ones,” said Vega. “We will continue to work with her in order to ensure her safety in the United States. For now, we are relieved that she is home, safe from the egregious treatment of her detention, and able to live her life as her true self.”


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