Released From ICE Detention Into a Pandemic: For One Woman, Returning Home Is Complex

Lexis Hernandez Avilez is back with her family. But returning home in the midst of a pandemic is complicated, and being home has brought up feelings of isolation and claustrophobia that she felt before she found friends at the Texas facility. (Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Defender's Office)

When Lexis Hernandez Avilez returned to her family home in Monterey County last Friday after being released from immigration detention, she said she felt nervous and was shaking.

"Honestly, I feel alone," Avilez said. "I feel a little strange still, here. And right now, when I came in ... I started kind of feeling the same way I was in the cell, being isolated."

After nearly 17 months locked up in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, Avilez is now adjusting to a strange kind of freedom — with Californians ordered to shelter at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Avilez has lived most of her 41 years in California, after being brought to the U.S. from Mexico as a baby. But in 2018, Avilez was turned over to ICE after serving time for a felony assault.

Avilez was assigned male at birth but struggled with gender identity for years. While in ICE custody at the Yuba County Jail in Marysville, California, and fighting deportation in immigration court, Avilez began to identify as female, and a jail doctor ordered treatment for gender dysphoria.

In December 2019, without the knowledge of her lawyer, ICE transferred Avilez to a detention facility in Texas — which officials said was the only place the agency could provide her the hormone therapy she needed.

Then, on April 8, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer ruled that Avilez was entitled to a bond hearing. An immigration judge found Avilez was not a flight risk and granted her release on a bond of $10,000, which was paid by the California-based nonprofit Freedom for Immigrants.

ICE released Avilez on April 24 and flew her back to California.

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Avilez said she's happy to be free. But, ironically, she has found it hard to be away from the Prairieland Detention Center, south of Dallas, where ICE houses some transgender detainees. Avilez spent just over three months there and received the hormone treatment she sought. She said it was one of the few places she felt accepted.

"They didn't see me no different, and that's why I was happy and I got real close with them," she said of the other immigrants in detention.

Now, Avilez is back with her family. But returning home in the midst of a pandemic is complicated, and being home has brought up feelings of isolation and claustrophobia that she felt before she found friends at the Texas facility.

Other people who've been previously incarcerated have also reported that the shelter-in-place order has triggered some memories of isolation from inside.

For Avilez, the difficult adjustment is not just the result of the time she spent in prison and detention, but that she's back in her aunt’s house — trying to live her life authentically in close quarters with some family members who haven't seen her since she transitioned to female.

"My aunt still calls me m’ijo. It's kind of hard for her, and I understand that. I'll have to sit down and talk with her about that later," Avilez said. "But, I want to be able to wear my makeup. I don't have to be scared no more."

Avilez lost an initial bid for asylum, but she has appealed. While she awaits her next immigration court hearing, she said she's eager to get her life started again. She wants to get a cellphone, so that she can call the friends she made in detention.

She also wants to get her job back. Avilez said she used to work in the medical field as a service technician, helping people who use wheelchairs and providing assistance to the elderly across Monterey County.

"I'm happy I'm free. [Though] I don't feel completely free because I'm wearing an ankle monitor ... I can't go out,” she said.

Since Avilez left ICE custody, she has not had access to hormone treatment. But attorney Hector Vega of the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, who represents Avilez in her immigration case, said social workers in his office have found a clinic in Monterey County that can provide her the medication, free of charge.

In her first act of independence since being released from detention, Avilez bought a pink T-shirt with a single parentheses in the middle and colons dotting either side, creating the image of both a sad and happy face.

"Is it a happy face?” Avilez asked. “You decide if it's happy or not."