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Monterey County Transgender ICE Detainee Released From Texas Detention Center

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- The San Francisco Public Defender's Office said Friday it has secured the release of Lexis Hernandez Avilez, a transgender woman has been detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since 2018 and was transferred from Northern California without notice last Christmas to a remote detention center in Texas.

Avilez, 41, who has lived in the United States since she was one and became a lawful permanent resident at 21, was a flight to San Jose to be reunited with her Monterey County family Friday after an immigration judge ordered her released. Born a boy, Avilez has struggled throughout her life to understand her identity, and suffered verbal and physical abuse from her immediate family well into adulthood, according to the public defender's office.

In 2018, Avilez was placed in immigration detention in Yuba County Jail following completing a sentence for a past conviction. She was then taken into ICE custody and placed in removal proceedings.

On Christmas Day without warning, she was transferred to the Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado, Texas.

Lexis Avilez
Lexis Avilez (San Francisco Public Defender's Office)

While she was detained in the Yuba County Jail, Avilez was diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria and came out as a transgender woman. The public defender's office said at this point, 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.

Yuba County Jail officials eventually started using her new name, but did not provide the hormonal treatment, clothing or housing requested despite months of advocacy, the public defender's office said.

On January 6, the public defender's office filed a motion seeking a temporary restraining order against ICE and the Yuba County Sheriff's Office after Avilez's Christmas Day transfer to the Texas facility.

"Ms. Avilez suffered significant mental hardship during her detention with ICE," said her lawyer, Hector Vega in a press statement. "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 her 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. The public defender's office also 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 Avilez as a transgender person in detention.

On April 8, the court granted Avilez's habeas petition and ordered a bond hearing. On April 16, the immigration judge found that Avilez was not a dangerous person and ordered her release on a $10,000 bond.

Yesterday, Avilez's family secured the money with help from the non-profit group Freedom For Immigrants. She was scheduled to fly into Mineta San Jose International Airport Friday before heading home to Gonzales, Monterey County.

"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 Avilez in a prepared statement. "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."

"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 in a statement. "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."

"I am thrilled that we were able to secure her release," he added.

Avilez was 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.

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