ABOVE: A transgender woman inside a unit for transgender detainees in Milan, N.M. Photo public domain.
More than 40 Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday called for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release all of the transgender people who are in their custody.
“The United States is bound by domestic and international law to protect — not punish — vulnerable populations escaping from persecution,” reads the letter to Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence and Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf that U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) spearheaded. “We demand that ICE abide by these laws by immediately bringing facilities detaining transgender individuals into compliance, and by arranging for release of transgender individuals at risk of sexual abuse and assault in ICE custody.”
“ICE should also ensure that such individuals have access to a safe environment and appropriate care upon release,” it adds.
ICE in previous interviews and statements to the Washington Blade has defended its treatment of trans people in their custody.
A 2015 memorandum then-ICE Executive Associate Director of Enforcement and Removal Operations Thomas Homan signed requires personnel to allow trans detainees to identify themselves based on their gender identity on data forms. The directive, among other things, also contains guidelines for a “respectful, safe and secure environment” for trans detainees and requires detention facilities to provide them with access to hormone therapy and other trans-specific health care.
ICE in 2017 opened a unit specifically for trans women at the Cibola County Correctional Center, a privately-run facility in Milan, N.M.
This reporter is among the handful of journalists who ICE invited to tour the facility on June 12, 2019. More than two dozen trans women at the Cibola County Correctional Center roughly two weeks later in a letter they sent to Trans Queer Pueblo, a Phoenix-based group that advocates on behalf of undocumented LGBTQ youth, complained about inadequate medical care and staffers who “psychologically and verbally” mistreated them.
Trans women who were detained at the Otero County Processing Center, a privately-run facility in Chaparral, N.M., last year claimed guards subjected them to transphobic comments and forced them to “bathe and sleep in units with men who sexually harass them.” They also allege guards did not stop their fellow inmates from using transphobic slurs against them.
Alejandra Barrera, a trans activist from El Salvador, was in ICE custody at the Cibola County Correctional Center for 20 months until her release on Sept. 6, 2019. Barrera was in solitary confinement for months, including on the day ICE allowed reporters to visit the facility.
The Congressional letter notes the case of Roxsana Hernández, a trans Honduran woman with HIV who was briefly detained at the Cibola County Correctional Center before she died in ICE custody at a hospital in Albuquerque, N.M., on May 25, 2018. It also highlights Johana “Joa” Medina León, a trans Salvadoran woman who passed away at a hospital in El Paso, Texas, on June 1, 2019, three days after ICE released her from the Otero County Processing Center.
“In the United States and around the world, transgender individuals face persecution that ranges from physical and sexual violence to other forms of mistreatment based on their gender identity and expression,” reads the Congressional letter. “This already vulnerable population faces a heightened and unique set of injustices while in immigration detention.”
“Transgender migrants and asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment, solitary confinement, physical assault and medical neglect,” it adds. “These inhumane conditions and systematic abuses are evidenced in countless reports and accounts by formally detained people.”
The letter also says “the pervasive use of solitary confinement has caused particular harm to transgender migrants in detention.”
“Immigrants who have faced fear and violence in their pursuit of a new life in the United States should not be confronted with more fear and threats of violence when they arrive at our borders,” said Quigley in a press release that announced the letter. “Unfortunately, too often, that is exactly what many transgender immigrants face when placed in ICE detention facilities.”
“Trans men and women experience a higher threat of sexual violence and are too frequently placed in solitary confinement,” he added. “If ICE cannot provide appropriate and humane accommodations for these migrants, they must release them from detention. No one else should have to lose their lives because of ICE’s cruel mismanagement.”
An ICE spokesperson on Tuesday said the agency “responds to Congressional correspondence through officials and by appropriate officials at the agency.”