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Trans woman sues after surprise Christmas move to Texas ICE facility

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A transgender woman being represented by the San Francisco Public Defender's office was unexpectedly moved to a federal immigration facility in Texas on Christmas. Photo: Courtesy GenderPortraits.com
A transgender woman being represented by the San Francisco Public Defender's office was unexpectedly moved to a federal immigration facility in Texas on Christmas. Photo: Courtesy GenderPortraits.com  

The San Francisco Public Defender's office filed a lawsuit in federal court January 3 on behalf of a transgender woman who is fighting deportation.

Lexis Hernandez Avilez, 41, was brought to the United States from Mexico as a child and has been in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for about 14 months, according to court documents obtained by the Bay Area Reporter.

In a statement January 3 from the public defender's office, Avilez said, "The conditions of my detention have worsened and have had a huge impact on my mental health and my ability to move forward. I think this has been so cruel to me. ICE and the other officers know how difficult the last 14 months have been for me and yet have had no compassion for the way they detain me and move me around like I mean nothing."

The public defender's office — which has been representing Avilez — brought the suit after Avilez was moved unexpectedly from the Yuba County Jail outside of Sacramento (which works with ICE on detaining people in the U.S. without legal permission), where she'd been detained, to an ICE facility in Texas on Christmas, without counsel being notified and after she was told she was about to be released, according to court documents.

"We represent people who have their immigration proceeding in San Francisco because the immigration court is here," said Avilez's attorney Hector Vega during a January 6 phone call with the B.A.R. There are only three immigration courts in California, the other two being in Los Angeles and Sacramento.

Vega is seeking Avilez's release, saying that the petition for a temporary restraining order is to "compel ICE/Yuba to take more immediate action on the case" either through releasing Avilez or by granting her a bond hearing in California.

"We are seeking ICE immediately release Lexis due to the conditions of her confinement," Vega wrote in an email to the B.A.R. January 6. "Alternately, to transfer her back to Yuba and grant her a bond hearing to determine whether her continued detention is warranted."

The conditions of Avilez's confinement include her being treated as male, referred to using male pronouns and her former male name, and given male clothing, according to court documents.

"Ms. Avilez now sits in a segregated cell, thousands of miles away from her pro bono attorney, her family, her treating medical professionals, and community members who have provided critical support throughout her gender transition," the complaint filed by the public defender's office said. "She continues to be detained indefinitely under conditions that imperil her health and safety."

Avilez has resided in California since 1979, according to court documents. She presented gender-nonconformity from a young age, for which she was reprimanded by her father.

She got married in 2000 and became a permanent resident of the U.S. (Federal law allows the spouses of U.S. citizens to become permanent residents. After three years they can apply for U.S. citizenship.)

In 2005, Avilez, then 26, was convicted of a gang-related assault.

"In prison and away from her brother's grip, Ms. Avilez immediately began the process of disavowing her gang ties," the complaint stated. "For the first time, she began to explore and embrace her sexual attraction to men."

Avilez identified as a bisexual man, which Vega said on a January 6 phone call with the B.A.R. was the result of a "lack of understanding and acceptance" of trans identities on the part of the wider culture. In 2019, Avilez began to openly identify as a transgender woman and started receiving treatment for depression.

She got her name legally changed. By that time she had been transferred to Yuba County and charged with being a permanent resident who was removable from the U.S. While Yuba medical staff recommended hormone therapy, and ICE said the request had been approved, Avilez never received it, according to court documents.

Since her move to Texas, Avilez has been having thoughts of suicide, according to court documents.

Before she was sent to Texas, Avilez had been told she was going to be released and called her family to share the good news, according to court documents.

"It comes down to human rights," Vega said. "My client's rights have been violated and ICE is holding her in a deplorable manner, in isolation, not using her name and gender."

ICE has until Tuesday, January 7, to respond to the complaint, after which a date will be set for a hearing.

In the release, Vega said that Avilez "poses no danger to society and deserves to be released from custody and have her human rights respected."

The San Francisco ICE enforcement and removal operations office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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